Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Listening In

There are two ways to interpret Jacqui Smith's announcement (in a speech to the IPPR) that the government is to "consult" about plans for a new massive database containing details of every phone call, internet search and email made by anyone, anywhere in Britain, ever.

The first is that it merely confirms what we already knew, that the Brown government remains wedded to the goal of omniscience and total control, all in the name of tackling terrorism, or international crime, or perverts, or whoever happens to be the object this year's headline-grabbing moral panic. That they won't stop until they have perfected a mind-reading chip that records details of every thought you ever have, and then makes it compulsory to have such a device implanted in every ID-card wearing citizen, because, after all, you can't be too careful when it comes to protecting the public. Comprehensive details of the scheme currently being drawn up by GCHQ were published in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, and chilling reading they make. And we all know (or ought to) what the word "consultation" means when this lot use it. It means collect statements from vested interests and others who agree with our position to use as propaganda when the consultation period is over, and ignore everyone who disagrees.

According to the Daily Mail's report of Smith's remarks,


Activities which will be subject to snooping for the first time include visits to social networking sites such as Facebook, auction sites such as Ebay, gaming websites and chatrooms.

Police and security services will not be able to access the precise content - but will know each site visited, and to whom and when a phonecall, text message or email was sent. This could be accessed within an hour of being sent, in virtual 'real time', sources say.


The Mail accompanies their article with a still from the film The Lives of Others, featuring a Stasi officer listening in on someone's conversation. Which suggests that Smith may have some problems with the PR for this scheme.

In her speech Jackboots trotted out the usual line that the terrorism we face is uniquely dangerous and thus requires new and unprecedented powers. After a brief trot through the history of "international terrorism" since the seventies (conveniently defining her ground so she could pretend the IRA, who were rather more successful and efficient terrorists than the likes of poor, manipulated Nicky Reilly, don't count) she declared that:

The international threat we face from terrorism today is wholly different in type, as well as extent, from the threat we faced twenty years ago. It is a wholly new form of terrorism – so different in motivation, complexity and reach, in fact, that it might as well have a different name.

The focus of those who threaten us today is not a cause related to a specific geographical area. They wish to kill British people – and of course others – anywhere in the world. They want a reordering of global political structures and a separation of faith groups.


The want a lot of things. The experience of the past seven years, though, shows that they are unlikely to come anywhere near achieving their aims. Unlike the government, whose ambitions for total control over a subservient or at least quiescent population seem to be far more realistic and well-advanced.

She then goes on:

In a country like our own – where law enforcement and intelligence agencies have managed to disrupt attacks and attempted attacks – it is sometimes hard to explain the scale and urgency of the threat we face. But no-one should take the absence of attack to mean the absence of threat – nor, indeed, to mean the absence of success in countering that threat.


To the last phrase of which one can only ask, eh? What she seems to be saying is: the police and security services have so far been very successful in foiling terrorist plots using the powers they have. This proves that they don't have enough powers. Of course, if a major attack succeeded then that, too, would be used as evidence that more powers were needed. And if the terrorist threat suddenly ceased to exist, I don't doubt that even that would be seen as a good reason to extend surveillance powers: as a deterrent to such a threat ever arising again.

Indeed, the empire of counter-terrorism is ever-expanding. Smith again:

You will have read last week about the excellent work of the Department for Children Schools and Families in providing advice to teachers on how to deal with signs of radicalisation. John Denham’s department has been working with student bodies and higher and further education to do something rather similar. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is considering what impact the issue of counter radicalisation should have on their programmes – as are the Department for Work and Pensions; and the Department of Health.

The Department of Health??? What - because of that doctor who drove his car into Glasgow airport? Strange she didn't mention the Ministry of Defence. The army hand out guns to people: what if one of them turns out to be a terrorist? Come to think of it, the Agriculture department ought to get involved - what with all that fertiliser sloshing around on farms. And a well-placed Al Quaeda sympathiser in the Treasury, the FSA or one of our leading city firms could do untold damage to the banking system. I wonder...

Now, listen to this for doublespeak:

There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online. Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation.

First of all, no-one has ever suggested that there were such plans - it would be, in information storage terms, impossible. Nor do the snoopers want it - the lavish GCHQ plans call for live-streaming of information, so once they know who is talking to who, they can start eavesdropping. But if local authorities aren't going to be given access to "such a database" to investigate lower level criminality, surely that must be because "such a database" does not, in fact, exist. Which leaves unanswered the question of what access they will have to the database that will exist.

All very frightening. But on closer examination it seems that what Jackboots promised may not actually happen. The Mail carried sceptical comments from the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. More importantly, says the report, a Bill is "expected to follow by the end of 2009 or 2010." In other words, the chance of it becoming law before the next election (assuming a later election in a year to 18 months' time) are virtually non-existent. The plans were due to have been announced in the Queen's Speech in a few weeks time - as the Sunday Times reported only a couple of weeks ago. "Officials say there is insufficient time," reports the Mail, as the subject is so "complex". More likely, the home office has calculated, following its retreats of the past couple of days on 42 days detention and secret inquests, that bringing forward the proposals at this stage would be asking for trouble.

Another problem for the government involves the massive cost of the project. The Interception Modernisation Programme, which would require the construction of a vast database, has been estimated as costing £12 billion. And that's only an initial estimate. A cash bonanza for the IT companies who would seem to be the only people, apart from the spooks and some of the police, who want such a scheme. The government is now saying that a cheaper option would be to require ISPs to store all the data, for access by police/MIF/local councils/whoever as and when. This would only cost the taxpayer about £1 billion, they think, with those same taxpaying schmucks picking up the bill as the telecom companies recouped their costs. But that's still a lot of money - though it perhaps doesn't seem so at the moment, given the enormous sums being thrown at the banks. And in any case the Mail might be slightly confused, since a figure of £1 billion is quoted elswhere as having already been allocated to the scheme.

In an interesting sidelight, The Register reports that the Ministry of Justice, under budgetry pressure, is considering "spending cuts that could possibly affect IT systems." This is to fill an expected funding gap, ahead of what is rumoured to be a savage public spending round. Officials "have identified a series of "quick wins" to recoup big savings that include the axing of computer systems to manage cases in the family and civil courts. These include the Electronic Filing and Document Management System, which would save nearly £46m if dropped." £46 million isn't very much in the world of government IT projects: it's certainly dwarfed by the huge sums being promised to companies operating the National Identity Register, the NHS "spine", or the paedophile-friendly childrens' database ContactPoint. So if such a paltry sum is seen as worth saving, how will these far grander projects justify themselves in the middle of a recession?

2 comments:

Olive said...

The NHS IT project, currently running at about £12bn (and 4 years late) was originally budgeted at about £3bn. Just imagine what Gordon & Jaqui's All Seeing Eye is going to cost us if the scary fuckers somehow get another term?
By the way, I love 'Jackboots' as an epithet for our beloved home secretary.

samworm said...

I happen to be UK based and happen to run my own mail server (which happens to have no logging) which is hosted in the USA. I use an encrypted tunnel to this server so my UK based ISP has no idea what mail I'm sending, what websites I visit or which restaurants I intend to detonate. I do this because I already had the US based server for other reasons and its convenient to have a US IP Address for watching various online TV shows. So I'm not even trying to avoid the dragnet.. but my innocent actions live me largely outside of its logging. If I was a terrorist it would be easy to bypass in similar (and countless other) ways. This will only be a useful spy network when used against normal citizens and hopelessly incompetent terrorists.