The last couple of weeks have seen UK newspapers filled with stories over UK Government plans to expand its monitoring activities to include email and social media. The two extreme ends of the point of view being it’s either the only way to stop criminal activity or one step away from a draconian privacy invasion something a kin to 1984.
Neither extreme is accurate. Obviously the more seriously criminally minded will start to use other methods of communication that are more secure, if indeed they are not already. In a humorous look of the proposed legislation comedian and presenter of the BBC’s Friday Night comedy, Sandi Toksvig recently conjured up the image of two terrorists in balaclavas talking to each other on Skype saying “Yes, I promise you it really is me under here.” However, with the right controls, it can play a significant role in the fight against crime.
At the same time, most people don’t have time to read their own email, let alone anyone else’s. If Government was planning on checking content, which incidentally it says it is not, then it would have to be using keyword or lexicon search.
Type “bomb site:twitter.com” into Google and it is easy to see that just the profile names of tweeters alone would keep someone busy for a long time let alone the messages, so it’s clear that some intelligence would need to be applied to make searching content worthwhile. It also highlights the challenges of scale, something that defeated the Labour government in its attempt to introduce similar legislation in 2009.
Perhaps one of the key issues is that of trust. With stories of local councils using RIPA (Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act) to accuse citizens of flouting the school catchment rules, it’s no wonder many people are wary of giving any government power to see who they call or chat to over the internet. If the TV programme Spooks is to be believed, the security services already have the technology anyway and are using it to listen in to every mundane conversation, text stream and email conversation anyway so what’s the difference? This of course is a long way from reality. However, the monitoring of suspicious traffic is a logical and more importantly, justifiable part of the crime-fighters armoury and with the massive strides being made in keyword and lexicon search and identification technology, also relatively easy to implement.
It is not the ability to listen-in to me telling the world what I am having for dinner on Facebook that is the issue, but how much control is in place to ensure we know who can listen to what.
The bottom line is that the growth of social and electronic media use by the criminal fraternity is a serious threat to our national security and well-being. Last summer’s riots grew at the pace they did because of the use of technology such as Blackberry Messaging, SMS and Twitter and monitoring will allow for the police and security organisations to react quickly and effectively to protect our safety. Terrorist communications have been proven to often be in the form of cleverly coded electronic communications.
“Ah”, I hear you say, “but what about human rights?”. Well, I think we have a decision to make – either we take the view that logically, there will be far too much traffic to allow for any investigator to focus on anything other than posts, tweets and blogs that trigger alarm bells OR we do nothing and run the risk of the criminal element enjoying unparalleled freedom of communication. The real issue is one of checks and balances to ensure responsible application of regulations around monitoring.
For this reason the UK Government, and indeed the others that are bound to follow suit, must ensure that the legislation protects society, whilst also protecting the rights of the individual.
When we look at most industry regulation today, that means implementing the technology to enforce a policy, archive it and provide a full audit trail to ensure that actions are accountable and that only authorised personnel have access. This technology is available today and its use needs to be factored into any policy discussion by government
Although we will have to wait until the full plan is revealed to truly analyse the consequences, I think it is inevitable that this type of legislation will eventually come into force. We live in a world where real-time communications is the norm, it is unrealistic to expect those we look to protect us to do so without the tools to combat others that use them for nefarious activities.