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Govt wants increased cyber snooping powers

Legislation to monitor phone calls, emails, text messages and online activity is vital for security, says government

By Vinod

The UK government wants to introduce new legislation that will give it vastly increased powers to monitor communications – all in the name of tackling crime and terrorism. Civil liberties groups however have slammed the plans.

Under plans set to be announced during the Queen’s Speech in May, PM David Cameron wants to have the power to monitor calls, emails, texts and website visits, including social media interactions, of every person in the UK.

The new law would mean ISPs have to collect the data and allow the government’s listening stations to access the information without a warrant. The information will include who an individual is in contact with and for how long and how often. Any websites visited by the individual would also be recorded and monitored.

The content of messages and phone calls would not be accessed without a warrant. However it is not a big leap to suggest that increased surveillance will lead to increased requests for warrants to enable security forces to access the content.

"It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public," said a Home Office statement.

"We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes. Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications," the statement added.

However, as Trend Micro’s Rik Ferguson points out, the people this new legislation is designed to target are tech-savvy; they will already be using techniques to bypass online tracking.

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"The Home Office insist that this information is vital for fighting crime and terrorism; but is this legislation really going to be effective against the people at whom it is supposedly aimed?" he asked on his blog.

"If national governments and law enforcement organisations truly believe that online criminals and international terrorists don’t know how to hide their online traces, then we have a bigger problem than we thought (sending an encrypted email with spoofed sender address from an Internet café is only lesson one)."

Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, told the BBC the move is an, "an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran. This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses."

The move echoes a similar one made by Labour when it was in power. That plan was shot down by a massive public outcry, led in part by the Tories.

However not everyone in the party is in favour. Conservative backbencher David Davis told the BBC: "What they haven’t explained is why they intent to eavesdrop on all of us without a warrant, which is what used to happen."

"Historically governments have been kept out of our private lives," he continued. "Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts [to get approval to access communications]. You shouldn’t go beyond that in a decent, civilised society but that is what is being proposed."

"This is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary innocent people," he concluded.

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