Coalition must take care with internet powers

Photo credit: PM's Office

Photo credit: PM's Office

As all people even minimally acquainted with the internet will have seen by now, the government plans to force internet and phone providers to store details of customer calls, emails and website visits in a major expansion of surveillance laws.

Home Secretary Theresa May last week mounted a robust defence of the Communications Data bill, insisting that it “would keep citizens safe by catching criminals.” In an interview with BBC Radio 4 she suggested the laws would only be used to access “crucial bits of information” and would not invade people’s privacy.

She denied that there was a lack of control over the laws despite admitting that there were more than 500,000 requests for such information. She said: “we are ensuring the capabilities of the police and Security Services to catch criminals, to stop paedophile rings and to put people behind bars to continues in an age where people are communicating through different means. It’s on such a scale because it is useful to the police.”

Inevitably, there will be a large outcry here, as on the surface it seems merely an extension of the “assault” on civil liberties many associate with the previous Labour government. The Conservatives and Lib Dems came into government promising an end to such privacy intrusions. Many would argue that they have renegaded on their promise.

For the nth time the Coalition has failed to adequately articulate a policy

If we take a step backwards, we can see that there is reason and rationality behind this policy. It is widely acknowledged that in today’s digital era, there is a plethora of crime that goes on or originates online. From online drugs sales to the incitement of the London Riots last summer, the internet plays an enormous role in crime in this day and age.

If we consider this, it makes sense for the government to grant increased powers to the police. Indeed as May says, the new laws could be rather helpful in catching paedophiles, terrorists and online criminals. That in turn, could make the rest of us safer online and in the real world.
Moreover, if people are doing nothing wrong online, then surely they have nothing to worry about. In addition to this, the bane of all government – local councils – are likely to be stripped of the powers to access phone call data.

However this bill is rather concerning. There are benefits to it, but putting the majority of hardworking, law-abiding people under the microscope to search for criminals that may not even be operating online is wrong and a cruel subversion of some of the basic civil liberties.

Furthermore, if we take online criminality as a given, then it is quite plausible that criminals and terrorists have the wherewithal to negotiate whatever the police throw at them quite comfortably. Indeed, David Davis said last week that the laws would only catch the “innocent” and the “incompetent”.

Branded a “snooper’s charter” by civil liberties groups, the bill runs the risk of alienating a great deal of the population. For the nth time the Coalition has failed to adequately articulate to the general public a policy, one which could change the face of police investigations.

It would be leaping to conclusions if we see this as part of a “big brother” society, but the government is beginning to blur the distinction between liberty and license, and is giving the latter an excessive primacy over the former.

Theresa May must be very careful. By granting the police these powers, she has given them a look into snippets of our private lives at the expense of individual liberty.

The police must use these powers with caution; a huge amount of trust is being placed in their hands. It is doubtful the majority of the public wanted it to be placed there in the first place.

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