Leading article: A dangerous erosion of individual liberty

Related Topics

In a democratic society, there is always a balance to be struck between citizens' safety and their right to privacy. Given the all-too-real threat of indiscriminate terrorist violence, the Government's latest plans to expand the state's powers to snoop on digital communications are understandable. But they tip the scales altogether too far.

Internet providers such as BT and Virgin Media are already required to save some information about their customers' online activities. Under new proposals expected to be included in next month's Queen's Speech, absolutely everything must be recorded: that means emails, instant messages, Skype calls, internet searches, social networking, Twitter accounts, online gaming forums, even web-browsing history. And not just for those suspected of criminal activities; for everyone.

A warrant will still be needed to access the contents of communications such as emails. But all the surrounding data – the who, what, when, where, and for how long – will be available for the police and security services not only to dredge through but also to monitor "in real time".

There are three different areas of concern here. The first is technical. Talking about gathering swathes of data from internet usage is one thing, doing it is quite another. Not only is the feasibility of collecting and storing such immense quantities of information open to question, there is also no easy way to design an interception system that will neither be easily circumvented nor need tweaking every time a third-party – Facebook, say – updates its software. Given the high failure rate of even fairly straightforward technology programmes, so ambitious a scheme, to be undertaken by any number of internet providers, begins to look unworkable.

Then there are the practicalities. How, for example, will the businesses involved pay for such far-reaching changes without adding to consumer charges? So much for the social and economic benefits of a fully networked world.

The vast data-bases produced will also present significant security risks of their own. Packed with consumer information on a wholly unprecedented scale, they will be a magnet both for hackers and for dishonest employees eager to profit from the considerable commercial potential of their contents. Indeed, even the companies themselves may be tempted to make the most of what they hold. Such concerns are as nothing, however, compared with the principle at stake.

Contrary to the Government's claims, this is no simple modernisation, no natural next step from the data collected in a telephone bill. Rather, it is a fundamental shift in the relationship between the individual and the state. Until now, that relationship has in part rested on the understanding that citizens can only be put under surveillance when a court has been convinced that there is good reason to do so. The Home Secretary's plans turn such a notion on its head. If they go ahead, surveillance will become the rule rather than the exception.

It is easy to see why the Government believes it needs new powers. With the horror of the 7/7 bombings still fresh in our minds, the consequences of terrorism are far from theoretical. Neither does the global reach of murderous terrorist ideologies show any sign of receding. In the face of such fearsome risks, Theresa May is not the first to try to increase the informational firepower available to the security services. Most likely she will not be the last. All must be resisted. So far-reaching a shift in the social contract cannot be undertaken lightly. Nor should it be rushed through in response to the fear of short-term threats, however severe. The price to be paid in the loss of individual liberty is too high. Ms May must think again.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Neo-Nazis march in London  

I'm taking my Jewish kids to a vile neo-Nazi rally in London this weekend because I want them to learn about free speech

Richard Ferrer
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map