By Simon Davies | The Guardian | November 14, 2009
The government is playing a two-handed game over its plan to snoop on all our communication and internet activity. On the one hand, officials have put it about that the scheme has been indefinitely shelved because of concerns raised in the public consultation on the proposals. On the other, Home Office insiders assure me that the government has no intention of putting the scheme on hold. Any statements to the contrary are designed to mitigate the risk of a negative campaign in the run-up to the general election.
The government quite rightly perceives an election risk because of its surveillance plans. It is, after all, proposing to reach deep into the private life of everyone in the nation. From your phone records and emails to your activity on social networking sites such as Facebook, the government wants to know everything you do.
The scheme is a political disaster in the making. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems have positioned themselves with a reform agenda on privacy. The mere existence of a surveillance plan of this magnitude would have created the sort of clear blue water that no government would want. Bad enough that it has already created a surveillance society second to none in the democratic world; even worse if it was seen to be moving toward a North Korean model.
The consultation in this scheme was a disreputable piece of work. The government tried to sell the snooping plans as if they were a range of vacuum cleaners. It offered a "do nothing" option, already dismissed by ministers; a ridiculously complex and unlawful option; and a "middle ground" option. The document offered no specific detail, primarily because officials and ministers had no clue what technology or techniques are available to spy on the public. It said nothing about safeguards, principally because the Home Office had no idea what it had to safeguard. And it was mute on specifics about risks, again because the government had no clue what it was trying to "protect" us from.
In other words, what was proposed was a nebulous scheme dreamed up on non-existent technology to combat unspecified threats. Little wonder that the majority of responses to the consultation dismissed the plans as sheer nonsense.
But the true litmus test of the viability of the government's scheme happened in Madrid recently. There, more than a thousand of the world's leading technical experts, lawyers, privacy regulators and corporations gathered at the International Conference of Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners to consider the best and the worst information projects in the world. The government's scheme sat magnificently at the top of the pile of bad ideas, attracting a uniquely harsh assessment from the experts at the meeting.
To give you a flavour of the considered expert view of the scheme, I could not find a single supporter of the proposals. The technology companies told me they were fantasy, the privacy commissioners said they were probably unlawful, and civil society groups said they are obnoxious. On the basis of my straw poll at the event, I could write a slogan for this scheme: "Eight out of ten of the world's biggest corporations think the government's plan is insane."
This scheme is a break point for this government. If it had any mind to assure the public that it cares about rights, it will make an unequivocal commitment in parliament to withdraw the plans. At least then we can have some assurance that some shred of privacy remains in our surveillance-infested world.