Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that for all their bluff and bluster about respecting civil liberties and offering a change from the status quo, the coalition government has decided to push the same ludicrous Internet spying policies that they originally opposed while Labour was in power. Wheeling out the usual pathetic excuses — blah blah terrorists blah blah paedophiles blah blah protecting children blah blah — they are proposing that the entire population’s web browsing history and email headers (but not content) should be collected by ISPs and made available to authorities, without a warrant, so that they can conduct fishing expeditions for potential criminals based on their Internet usage patterns.

Decision Making

The flaccid ineptitude of the arguments put forward to justify such plans, derived largely from GCHQ’s blind panic that dangerous criminals might be discussing their next suicide bombing or child abduction using those newfangled computery things, is matched only by the shocking technological ignorance that is reflected in their proposed implementation. For starters, British ISPs are capable of accessing data only for messages which are exchanged via their own servers, which immediately excludes anything sent within or between major US webmail providers such as Google, Hotmail or Yahoo. But nobody uses those, right, and it’s not like any Abdullah, Mohammad or Jamal can just sign up for an account no-questions-asked, is it? Oh wait.

The security services also want access to web browsing history and the details of private Facebook and Twitter messages, and here the government continues to demonstrate its inability to grasp the fact that it does not have jurisdiction over the entire world. The British Home Office is no more in a position to demand privileged access to the internals of American social networks than the governments of Iran or Libya, and their requests will most likely be met with much the same response. In some cases that doesn’t matter, because the data can be collected when the UK-based user accesses the foreign website over the internet — except when the connection is encrypted, like Twitter’s secure login page, or Google’s secure search, at which point the British spies are, once again, out of the picture.

The proposals have also made no mention of VOIP services such as Skype (also encrypted) or video chats such as Google+ hangouts (which produce so much data that storing all of it would be next to impossible), so we can safely assume that the government either has no solution or simply hasn’t thought of these issues. It also appears to have given little consideration to the potential for abuse by hackers or corrupt insiders — one might think that the recent phone hacking scandal would have served to illustrate the danger of innocent people’s private information falling into the wrong hands, but expecting politicians to get the message would be to under-estimate the resilience of human stupidity.

In short, we are looking at plans based on little more than guesswork, platitudes, and a childishly naïve faith in the impartial objectivity of law enforcement with regard to the powers it needs, which are not just technically flawed but so utterly trivial to bypass that one has to wonder if the government is being deliberately set up to fail by its “advisors”. Given the contemptuous disregard for evidence and the scientific method that has been displayed by various administrations over these past few decades, it would be unsurprising if the current crop of consultants have simply decided that giving ministers enough rope to hang themselves is more effective than wasting time dispensing advice which will fall on deaf ears. Perhaps when some influential “family values” blowhard gets their fetish porn-browsing history leaked to the tabloids the New English Stasi will actually learn something.