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Big Brother Rises in Britain

New legislation by David Cameron's government would allow mass monitoring of private communication, raising the specter of Orwell's 1984.
By Gabe Kahn
First Publish: 4/2/2012, 8:07 PM

David Cameron
David Cameron
Reuters

British authorities are set to allow one of their intelligence agencies to monitor all phone calls, texts, emails and online activities in the country to help tackle crime and terror attacks.

“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,” a Home Office spokesman said.

Critics charge the new legislation by David Cameron's government raises the specter of Big Brother from George Orwell’s 1984.

In Orwell's novel pervasive mass monitoring of the public by the nation's totalitarian government was de rigueur. 

“This is the first step towards the government taking control of the internet,” insists Big Brother Watch Director Nick Pickles.

“The only place in the world that’s got that kind of regulation is China. And I’m sorry, but Britain is not China,” he added.

“The problem here is that it’s intrusive. The sort of place where it might be useful could be anything; it could be tax, divorce, copyright infringement,” Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock points out.

“Terrorism and serious crime is a tiny subset of the possibilities of what this information could be used for,” he warned.

The proposed law isn't just drawing strong criticism from activists who see it as an unnecessary invasion of privacy, but from members of the ruling Conservative Party’s as well.

“What the government hasn’t explained is precisely why they intend to eavesdrop on all of us without even going to a judge for a warrant, which is what always used to happen,” Member of Parliament David Davis told BBC News.

“It is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people,” he said.

Currently, British agencies can monitor calls and e-mails of specific individuals who may be under investigation after obtaining ministerial approval.

Internet companies would be required to install hardware which would allow the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), referred to as Britain’s electronic ‘listening’ agency, to gain real-time access to communications data.

The new law would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant, but it would allow it to trace who an individual or group was in contact with, how frequently they communicated and for how long.

The Sunday Times newspaper, which first reported the story, said some details of the proposals were given to members of the Britain’s Internet Service Providers’ Association last month.

“As set out in the Strategic Defense and Security Review we will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to ensure that the use of communications data is compatible with the government’s approach to civil liberties,” the Home Office spokesman said.

The proposed legislation could reflect the U.S. Patriot Act, controversially introduced six weeks after September 11 in 2001, to expand the government’s authority to monitor the communications activity of its citizens.