Snooper's Charter: The internet can’t keep our secrets. And neither can the Government

The balance between freedom and protection is very hard to get right, but when government fails to do so, it's vital they admit their mistake

Christina Patterson
Tuesday 11 December 2012 20:00

On Saturday it was my birthday. I had a nice day, thank you, with lots of messages and cards. I had a nice message from my gym, which I hardly ever go to, and one from a hotel in Prague. And I had three from dating websites. One was from a website I used four years ago and two were from websites I visited once.

I also had a message from Tesco, and one from M&S. These, it’s true, didn’t mention my birthday. Not everyone in my email box seemed to know it was my birthday. Tesco thought I might like a “cyber deal” and M & S thought I might want some “per una” clothes. M&S didn’t seem to realise that I walk through their clothes department to get to the office and that those walks had made me very clear that I don’t. They probably couldn’t tell, from the fact that I once used their website to send some flowers to my mother, that I don’t like “per una” clothes. But if they bothered to look at the footage they’ve probably taken of me walking through their store, they could probably tell from the look on my face.

Lots of the emails in my inbox think they know what I want. They think, for example, that because I once booked a train ticket to visit a friend in Yorkshire, I will probably want to book train tickets to Yorkshire every week. They think if I saw one play at a theatre, I’ll want to see all the plays at that theatre. They think if I bought a CD of Katherine Jenkins for an interview, I’ll want to buy CDs of Katherine Jenkins all the time.

I don’t. I don’t listen to Katherine Jenkins, or go on romantic weekends in Prague with men I’ve picked from a different dating website every week. I don’t, if I’m honest, recognise the person in the emails, who sounds like a middle-aged, middlebrow Bridget Jones. But I can’t blame anyone else. I wish I could, but I can’t. For speed, and convenience, and train tickets, and flowers, I have signed away a chunk of my inbox, and a part of my soul.

Wild Wild Web

When Labour came to power in 1997, only 10 per cent of the population had access to the internet, and only 18 per cent had a mobile phone. The first BlackBerry came out in 1999. Facebook followed in 2004, and Twitter in 2006, and in 2007 the iPhone. And in 2008, a Labour Home Secretary decided that it was time for the law to catch up. She thought that if shops, and hotels, and train companies and, of course, internet service providers, could store lots of information about our lives, then the police should be able to use it to catch criminals, too.

The Tories disagreed. They thought that a big database which had details of every internet visit, phone call and email sounded too much like a nanny state. The Lib Dems disagreed, too. The Lib Dems, in fact, always say they don’t want to do things that limit people’s personal freedom, until they join coalitions and decide they do. But then the Tories, and the Lib Dems, changed their mind. When they got into government, they changed their mind. When they got into government, they decided that if you wanted to catch a paedophile or a terrorist, you had to be able to see what the paedophile or terrorist had been looking at online. And if you wanted to see what the paedophile or terrorist had been looking at online, you might as well see what the 53 million other internet users in this country had been looking at, too.

That wasn’t, apparently, quite the plan. The plan wasn’t, apparently, for a central database that the police, and the state, would hold. The plan was for lots of different companies to hold the information, and for there to be a “request filter” that would mean the police, and security agents, and Government could get the information when they wanted it. But the plan, according to two different committees of peers and MPs, who have looked very closely at the Bill, and talked to hundreds of technical experts, is very much like Labour’s plan. The plan, according to one of those reports, will give the Home Secretary “sweeping powers” to give secret orders to companies to hand over information. And the plan, according to the report, won’t work. It might work for stupid criminals, who haven’t yet worked out how they can avoid this kind of surveillance (though the MPs’ report might give them some tips) but it won’t work for the clever ones, who have.

“Criminals, terrorists and paedophiles will want MPs to vote against this Bill,” said Theresa May in an interview last week. Criminals, terrorists, paedophiles and, she might now add, Nick Clegg. “It’s a question,” she said, “of whose side you’re on.” It’s a question, in other words, of black and white. If you want the Government to catch a few more paedophiles, and a few more terrorists, all you have to do is hand over every single detail of your life.


It isn’t a question of whose side you’re on. You can dislike terrorists and still not want everyone’s bags to be searched every time they get on a Tube, or bus. You can dislike paedophiles, and also acknowledge that most paedophiles find their victims at home. You can agree that the current laws, which don’t seem to have realised that the only person who uses a landline in this country is your mum, need updating, and still not think that what they need updating to is this. You can, in other words, acknowledge that the balance between freedom and protection is a very, very hard thing to get right, but still think that it’s the Government’s job to try. And, when they get it wrong, to try again.

But you can also acknowledge that if the Government is failing at this, it’s because we’ve nearly all failed at this. We have vomited out the details of our lives to people we’ve never met, and don’t know. We have tapped gossip, and details of love affairs, into a machine as if it was a friend who had sworn never to tell a secret, and not a thing that remembers everything, and is happy to pass the things it remembers on. We have treated the office server as if it was our closest friend.

It isn’t. If we thought about it for two minutes, we’d know it isn’t. If we thought about it for two minutes, we’d realise that the messages we send out into the ether will still be there long after we’ve gone. By their emails, and tweets, and posts on Facebook, shall ye know them. If we don’t like the picture that’s built up, from these bits of information that we have freely given, then more fool us.

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