The Googlisation of Surveillance

Glyn Moody writes in his blog at ComputerWorld UK:

The Draft Communications Bill is one of the most controversial pieces of UK legislation proposed in recent years – not least because it represents a betrayal of election promises by the coalition to roll back state surveillance in the UK. As usual, the government is attempting to claim that current plans are “different” because the databases are distributed, not centralised; but the fact that searches will be possible across all the decentralised holdings means that there is no practical difference. This is quite simply another example of politicians promising one thing to get elected, and then doing its opposite.

However, all is not lost. Recognising perhaps that there would be a storm of protest over this move to a total surveillance state, the government has graciously permitted “pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses”. This has already led to some very lively questioning, and that same Joint Committee has also made a call for written evidence, which can be submitted until 23 August.

He urges his readers to respond to this “crucially important consultation”, and publishes his own response on the “Googlisation of Surveillance”:

3. The other assumption is even more seriously erroneous: that a series of distributed databases holding local stores of information about individuals is far less problematic than a centralised system. The reason for this is that computing has moved on to such an extent that it is now relatively easy to carry out searches across huge numbers of databases; this means that there is no practical difference between the two.

4. It is these cross-database searches that are the real problem with the proposed surveillance scheme – the “filters” as they are called in the Bill. Computing power is so great now that it is relatively easy to carry out complex cross-database searches that link together apparently disparate information: call it the Googlisation of surveillance. Just as we can find links between areas that might seem quite unrelated, thanks to the power of Google’s databases, so all kinds of connections will be found through the use of filters. In particular, it will be possible to map out practically any aspect of anyone’s life by framing the right filters. Far from offering a very limited view of what people are doing online, the proposed databases will effectively know everything about everyone.

Paul Bernal, Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law at the UEA Law School, has also published his response to the consultation:

The entire project needs a thorough rethink. Warrants (or similar processes) should be put in place before the gathering of the data or the monitoring of the activity, not before the accessing of data that has already been gathered, or the ‘viewing’ of a feed that is already in place. A more intelligent, targeted rather than universal approach should be developed. No evidence has been made public to support the suggestion that a universal approach like this would be effective – it should not be sufficient to just suggest that it is ‘needed’ without that evidence, nor to provide ‘private’ evidence that cannot at least qualitatively be revealed to the public.

That brings a bigger question into the spotlight, one that the Committee might think is the most important of all. What kind of a society do we want to build – one where everyone’s most intimate activities are monitored at all times just in case they might be doing something wrong? That, ultimately, is what the Draft Communications Bill would build. The proposals run counter to some of the basic principles of a liberal, democratic society – a society where there should be a presumption of innocence rather than of suspicion, and where privacy is the norm rather than the exception.

The draft bill is here and the committee’s call for written evidence is here.