One of the consistent themes running through our seemingly unstoppable slide towards an authoritarian state, is that most of the key changes slip by almost completely unnoticed. While a lot of the blame for this can be placed squarely on the shoulders of an apathetic public, our government has become increasingly adept at bringing in new powers without properly telling anyone. And so it is with The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2007. A seemingly innocuous piece of Government red tape, actually gives the state sweeping and unprecedented powers to probe even deeper into your life, that will put us on a pegging with the Chinese when it comes to monitoring and tracking private citizens. Before I vent forth on the latest tools in this privacy busting document, it's worth noting that this is one of an increasing number of laws that are being made and changed without going through parliament. Under The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act, Ministers can amend existing law without needing to debate the proposed act before parliament. This means that when they have something particularly controversial they want to get through, they can deftly avoid all that boring democratic debate and potential defeat. Not surprisingly the New Home Secretary Jacqui Smith used the Leg and Reg to whip this piece of data retention legislation, as if she had put it before parliament even the most docile of slumbering MP would raise an eyebrow or two.
Show me the Data!
The new rules compel phone companies to retain information, however private, about all land line and mobile calls, and make them available to some 795 public bodies and quangos. While the justification for these new powers was, predictably, fighting terrorism, the vast majority of these bodies have absolutely nothing to do with foiling suicide bombers, and include:
-The tax authorities
-475 local councils
-The Food Standards Agency
-The Department of Health
-The Immigration Service
-The Gaming Board
-The Charity Commission
While I'm sure The Charity Commission does excellent work, I'm a little confused as to how they will stop Al'Qaeda bombing parliament by knowing how many sex lines I've called this week.
Records will detail precisely what calls are made, their time and duration, and the name and address of the registered user of the phone. The files will even reveal where people are when they made mobile phone calls. By knowing which mast transmitted the signal, officials will be able to pinpoint the source of a call to within a few feet. This can even be used to track someones route if, for example, they make a call from a moving car. Files will also be kept on the sending and receipt of text messages.
While genuine baddies are easily going to be several steps ahead of such ham fisted surveillance (real terrorists sadly use codes to avoid detection - this little trick was first used in the Gunpowder Plot) the real losers, again, are going to be unsuspecting members of the public, about whom yet more data is compiled, sifted and sold.
This is but a taste of what's to come. By 2009 the Government plans to extend the rules to cover Internet use: the websites we have visited, the people we have emailed and phone calls made over the net.
But if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear, right?