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: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Not only is Liz Kendall a shy Tory, but her words are also likely to appeal to racists

Charlie Brinkhurst Cuff
Andy Coulson  

Andy Coulson: With former News of the World editor cleared of perjury charges, what will he do next?

James Cusick James Cusick
Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)