Big Browser will watch your every move

The state is threatening internet users' privacy
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The Independent Online

Imagine a place where any government official, in any agency, can gain access to your financial details, your health records, your purchases, your mail. All your intimate personal data. Without a warrant, and without so much as ministerial authority.

Imagine a place where any government official, in any agency, can gain access to your financial details, your health records, your purchases, your mail. All your intimate personal data. Without a warrant, and without so much as ministerial authority.

That place could be Britain. For if the Home Secretary Jack Straw has his way, Big Browser will soon be watching you.

This week, the Lords will continue considering in Committee a bill that will create a regime of mass surveillance across the internet. The legislation, known as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) bill, is widely viewed as the most draconian proposal of its type in the world, devised by people who believe criminality and tax evasion will flourish in cyberspace, leaving law enforcers powerless to tackle a range of criminal activities.

The Bill will give the Government an armoury of powers to place computer and internet use under scrutiny.

And even though the justification for this bill is based in large part on anecdote and rhetoric, the proposals, until recently, had met with widespread support.

Now, however, an unprecedented coalition of business and civil liberties groups is opposing the bill, warning that the measures are heavy-handed and ill-considered. There are also fears that there will be loss of confidence in e-commerce, unacceptable costs to business and the economy, confusion and uncertainty at numerous levels of business activity, and an onerous imposition on the rights of individuals.

The privacy threats are almost limitless. Under the legislation, any public authority can obtain a list of e-mail activity and websites. A limitless number of people could be monitored, via the government's planned monitoring centre located in MI5, without any ministerial or judicial warrant. Meanwhile, under a secrecy clause, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are prevented from notifying their users of any interception warrants.

Opponents of the bill have also recently been mulling over the prospect that tax and revenue authorities will use the new powers to conduct a massive drift-net fishing operation over the entire internet, as a means of exacting money. For while goods brought into the country - including those purchased via the internet - will continue to be taxed at point of entry, no such facility exists over the internet for the taxing of products such as music files or manuscripts.

Would the authorities ever use these powers? On the basis of the past record of the Inland Revenue, it is likely they will. Channel 4 recently revealed that revenue authorities have approached supermarkets to obtain loyalty-card files. They say the information is useful to determine whether a person's spending matches the lifestyle inferred by their tax return.

A report released last week by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has warned that the economic impact of the bill will be substantial. It estimates that investor confidence in UK e-commerce will be shaken so much that £35bn will leak from the economy over the next five years.

This extraordinary economic impact has little to do with surveillance. It relates to another part of the bill - part III - which creates a new offence for companies or individuals who cannot hand over the "key" to encrypted files, or encryption systems, on their computers. If a key is lost, or the password is forgotten, the threat of imprisonment remains. Such a warrant scheme has twice been found under legal audits to be incompatible with the Human Rights Act because it reverses the burden of proof, as the defendant must prove a negative.

Business is concerned that the security of their information may be compromised by this section of the bill because confidentiality is central to contracts with third parties, customers and clients. It would mean overseas companies will have a competitive advantage.

The threat that any government agency can demand the keys to this secret information has caused grave concern among UK businesses. It may result not only in the UK missing out on investment for new e-commerce operations, but in clients and companies moving their transactions offshore.

Until now, the bill's passage has been handled by Home Office Minister Charles Clarke. But as the heat was turned up last week by the press, the Lords and business groups, Jack Straw entered the fray. He placed himself squarely behind the security services and the police by talking up the potential for the bill to tackle crime on the internet, then launched a spirited attack on the authors of the BCC's economic report.

Straw's intervention is significant. It indicates that the driving force behind the bill is substantial, and the air of desperation within sections of government to get the legislation through has blinded the Home Office to commercial and human rights sensitivities.

Support for the bill in the Lords is slipping away. One of the few bills in recent memory which bonds the interests of commerce and human rights, the Lords are right to view it with the utmost gravity.

Simon Davies is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Information Systems of the London School of Economics.

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