Terrorism and child pornography used to justify surveillance society, says academic

Internet users are being spied on in their own home as the Government uses the threat of terrorism and the spread of child pornography to justify launching a dramatic expansion of surveillance society, according to a leading academic.

(TELEGRAPH)    The authorities have taken “advantage of the terrorist bombing in London” to erode civil liberties, according to Professor Ian Walden, an expert on internet communication and online security.

He said today’s “Orwellian” surveillance of our online habits was even more intrusive than the introduction of CCTV on Britain’s streets.

“You can now hide cameras but generally cameras are a physical manifestation of surveillance. With the internet, you are sitting at home which you think is private, but of course it is declared a public space because your service provider knows everywhere you’ve gone, everything you’ve downloaded, it knows everything, potentially”, he told The Daily Telegraph.

His comments come after the Government announced it was pressing ahead with privately held “Big Brother” databases that opposition leaders said amounted to “state-spying” and a form of “covert surveillance” on the public.

The police and security services are set to monitor every phone call, text message, email and website visit made by private citizens. The details are set to be stored for a year and will be available for monitoring by government bodies.

All telecoms companies and internet service providers will be required by law to keep a record of every customer’s personal communications, showing who they have contacted, when and where, as well as the websites they have visited.

Ministers had originally wanted to store the information on a single government run database, but backed down after privacy concerns were raised.

“Once happy to leave cyberspace ‘unregulated’, Governments, including that of the UK, seem increasingly willing to encroach on what we do, say and see over the Internet,” said Professor Walden, head of the Institute of Computer and Communications Law at Queen Mary, University of London.

He warned that increasing use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter will give the authorities access to information about individuals’ private lives.

”As we spend more of our lives online, concerns about the impact of surveillance on rights of expression and privacy are likely to increase,” he said.

Professor Walden, a former trustee on the Internet Watch Foundation, the industry self regulatory body, said that problems such as child pornography, illegal file sharing and terrorism are used to justify ‘Big Brother-like’ scrutiny of all internet activity, even though the vast majority of web users are law abiding.

“The police clearly took advantage of the terrorist bombing in London to get an agenda, which has been around for years, pushed to the forefront” he said.

“They would never have got Government support for data retention, which became a European issue, without the Madrid and London bombings.” The 2004 Madrid bombers used one shared web based email account to make plans, rather than exchanging messages that could be intercepted. Their actions killed 191 people and wounded over 1,000.

“Concerns from civil liberty groups are we will lose the liberties that we thought we had without necessarily notifying us. Why does the data on all of us have to be retained in order to find out about those that are bad?”

He highlighted the danger of laws created to catch dangerous criminals later being manipulated to spy on millions on households.

Local councils have been criticised for using anti-terrorism (RIPA) laws to snoop on residents suspected of littering and dog fouling offences.

“My concern is that its easy policy-making… if you say it’s against terrorism and it’s against child pornography then nobody is going to say no.”

His comments echo those made by Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, who last year accused ministers of interfering with people’s privacy and playing straight into the hands of terrorists, by creating a “police state”

The shift towards greater state control of online content, and how it will impinge on our rights, will be discussed by Professor Walden in his inaugural lecture at Queen Mary, University of London on Wednesday 3 February 2010.


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