Web surveillance: Q&A
telegraph.co.uk | Sep 6th 2012
What is being proposed?
The Government wants to be able to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK as they happen.
Why is this needed?
The Government claims that being able to see who is talking to whom and what they’re doing generally would allow security services to spot potential risks earlier on.
What happens currently?
A magistrate must approve each individual request for records to be turned over to the police or other authority. Records are not available for immediate inspection. The new proposals could provide a ‘mirror’ for GCHQ to see all traffic instantly.
Does this mean the state can read my emails?
No – there’s a difference between ‘contact’ and ‘content’ – so the Government will only be able to see where you’ve been online, or who you’ve been emailing, not what you’ve been saying.
This change is raising privacy concerns, however, because the state can currently effectively see the outside of every letter’s envelope, but not the contents. The new proposals would be analogous to asking Royal Mail to keep a copy of everything that it handles, and make it available to Government on request.
What does the Government want to include?
There’s not a lot of confirmed detail around, but the spirit of the idea is everything, from Facebook messages to Skype Instant messages.
Who would do this?
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.
Who would pay?
Most ISPs do not need to keep anything currently, as websites track users themselves for commercial purposes. Costs could be substantial. Historically, something like this would be covered by Government rather than ISPs, s taxpayers would foot the bill.
Would it be easy to circumvent this?
Probably – China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is routinely circumvented by users with “proxy servers” which hide users’ true locations and identities.
Are there technical barriers?
Yes – secure networks such as BlackBerry, websites that use ‘secure socket layer’ (SSL) technology, as well as the fact that there’s no sure way of knowing who actually owns a web-based email address will all pose problems. It’s also not certain how this would apply to Skype calls, for instance.
When is the new legislation likely to appear?
It could be announced in the Queen’s Speech in May.
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