Cyber snooping: a snoop too far?

June 26, 2012

By Nigel Wilson 

The day after a public intervention from MI5 Director General Jonathan Evans, a panel as divided as it was well-informed, debated the merits of the government’s draft Communications Bill. The Frontline Club was packed and the feisty discussion began with each specialist setting out their pitch.

Professor Anthony Glees, billing himself as the “skunk at the picnic”, was unapologetic in his support for the proposals, which he said would merely extend powers that the security services already have to include newer forms of technology. Eschewing the arguments that have characterised the debate in the national press, he stated that:

 “A lack of trustfulness is the real problem here. The Bill, I’m entirely comfortable with it, I have no problem with it. In fact I’d want my money back if our security community did not attempt to extend on to the new media the things that already exist.”

Liberty’s Isabella Sankey offered a robust response. Denouncing the Bill as “rotten to the core”, she argued that it would infringe on principles of privacy and that if it were to fall into malicious hands, communications data could be extremely damaging.

David Davis MP joined Sankey with a scathing attack on the Bill, claiming the government had “the wrong aim, it was moving in the wrong direction and was starting from the wrong place.” Whilst supportive of the security agencies, Davis specified that the databases that will be created:

“[…] would be a honey pot. Not just of interest to the agencies but to every divorce lawyer in the country, paparazzi who might want to Ping where you are so they can come and photograph you. This is facilitating a breach of everybody’s privacy to almost no beneficial effect.”

Jamie Bartlett from think-tank Demos countered Davis’ argument, suggesting that British society regulates some forms of snooping and that privacy is not an absolute right – on some occasions being breached in the interests of national security. Bartlett was less troubled by security services increasing their powers than he was by the unregulated internet, controversially proposing that the Bill in some respects doesn’t go far enough:

“A police officer, a civil servant, anybody else can spend five minutes online and probably learn much more about you than he or she ever would do under the powers of this Bill. There are loads of serious questions here that I don’t think the Bill begins to address.”

The Q&A session was filled with poignant questions, including some on the effectiveness of the proposals when smart hackers are already able to use proxies and the “deep web” to hide their identity. The prospect of a generation of coders is sure to raise new dilemmas for future governments.

As for the here and now, the panellists left the stage having accepted that the public don’t currently foster much trust in the police, MPs or the security services and that this is something that needs to change if there’s to be a sensible, engaging debate on the proposals.

Watch the full event here: