Web surveillance and email monitoring: why should we care?telegraph.co.uk | Apr 2nd 2012
If there’s anything to be learned from last week's cash for access debacle, pastygate flake-up and fuel strike conflagration, it’s that David Cameron and his cronies may be a bit out of touch with their electorate.
But perhaps they were paying attention after all. Ofcom's latest study shows that Britons are less concerned about the Internet than ever. According to their research, 20 per cent are worried about online security and fraud, and only eight per cent are kept up at night by fears for their online privacy. It seems the timing couldn't have been better for the government to propose its latest idea: a digital surveillance plan that would allow real-time monitoring of all phone calls and emails in Britain.
There's no question: this is truly disturbing and a clear infringement on privacy. But before you unplug your computer and run for the hills, consider two things: how will the government actually make this work? And is it any different from the online monitoring taking place already?
Everyone currently checking their email, filing their taxes or reading this article on a computer at work is using an internet connection their employer pays for, which said employer can legally monitor at any time. That includes all internet activity, even if accessed through a private browsing session. Independently, countless websites themselves have access to your browsing habits, using cookies to track the pages you've visited online, and as a result probably know more about your web surfing patterns than you do.
Crucially, the proposed surveillance plan doesn't go that far. As the Telegraph's Matt Warman clarifies, “The aim is for internet service providers to keep a copy of everything, which the government can then access on demand. Content, however, would still need a warrant.” The difference from the current system, which requires a court order or subpoena for phone or internet history, is that GCHQ would have real-time access (and presumably real-time warrants).
The real sticking point is the storage. How can a government interested in supporting businesses successfully impose a monumental new cost on internet service providers? And how can they ensure this independent storage is secure against the hackers currently rubbing their hands with glee? That's 65 million people's worth of calls and emails, with the average inbox receiving around 14,600 emails per year. I wish them good luck.
I am far more concerned about companies demanding direct access to private content. Neither the current proposal nor the much more intrusive US Patriot Act legislation ask for the content of emails – under a warrant, it demands email and IP addresses and the date and time sent, but never the subject line, and not the content. Companies, however, are continually pushing the limit on what they can access. While we should know better than to watch the cricket on the company computer during work hours, it's arguably still within our rights to keep our personal social networks separate from employers.
The sad truth is that most of us are willingly sharing data that on second thought, we wish were private. Is it better if said online snooping took place to catch terrorists, rather than to sell me the latest offering from John Lewis? Let's see if Cameron and friends can stand up to the behemoths of O2, Virgin and BT. In the meantime, we need to tackle our own bad habits: using weak passwords, accessing online banking on public computers, falling for online scams, and above all, forgetting that the internet is not an open, free-for-all zone.
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