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June 15, 2012

British Government Launching Massive Electronic Surveillance Effort

By Jacqueline Lee, Contributing Writer

For people who live in Britain, electronic privacy may soon become a relic of the past. According to Home Office Secretary Theresa May, the British government plans to log details of every e-mail, Web visit, phone call and text message sent within the U.K.

The British government promises that it is not after the content of communications; reading e-mails and eavesdropping on phone conversations would still require a warrant. However, information that would be logged about communications like e-mails, tweets and Skype (News - Alert) messages would include the identities of the sender and recipient, the time that the communication occurred, and the size of any transferred files.

Large telecommunications carriers, like BT Group (News - Alert) and Virgin Mobile, would be required to collect the information for the government. The government also wants to keep logs of Internet histories, including visits to sensitive sites like porn, dating and medical websites.

The chief of Scotland Yard, Barnard Hogan-Howe, wrote an editorial for the Times of London stating that collecting communications data played a pivotal role in 95 percent of criminal investigations. Regarding child pornography, for instance, the government asserts that it is missing one-quarter of the traffic because it doesn’t have the authority to collect communications information.

Some privacy advocates and officials expressed concerns about the proposal. "This is a huge amount of information, very intrusive to collect on people,” said David Davis, a lawmaker from May’s Conservative party and one of the proposals’ most outspoken critics. “It's not content, but it's incredibly intrusive.”

Secretary May dismissed concerns, saying that dissention was composed of “ridiculous claims” made up by “conspiracy theorists.”

“Without changing the law the only freedom we would protect is that of criminals, terrorists and pedophiles,” May explained.

In 2009, the Department for Communities and Local Government objected to what it called the British “surveillance state”.

“It is right and important that councils have these powers of surveillance - they are an effective means of tackling real problems that can blight communities. But the public must have confidence in who has these powers and that they are used in a proportionate and proper way which is why we are working closely with the home office and local government to develop training and guidance,” the department concluded.

The new law would expand the British government’s surveillance powers far beyond the levels objected to in 2009.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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