In Great Britain's Parliament next month, the Queen's speech will introduce legislation that would encroach on internet privacy in a dramatic way. It will be mandatory for Internet companies to install hardware that would enable the government to use GCHQ, its listening agency, to examine on demand any phone call, text message or email delivered in “real time.”
According to a spokesman for the government:
It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes … Communications data includes time, duration and dialing numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of Government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications.
Critics contend that the legislation portends a dangerous escalation in the intrusion of government in private matters. The director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, Nick Pickles, warned:
This is an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran. This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses. If this was such a serious security issue why has the Home Office not ensured these powers were in place before the Olympics?
Doubtless there will be comparisons in the United States to the Patriot Act; such comparisons, however, would simply not be accurate. Critics of the Patriot Act attacked it for the pen register amendments, which applied a privacy law designed for the telephone to the internet. But they didn't acknowledge that internet surveillance is primarily governed by statutory law, rather than the constitutional protections of the Fourth Amendment, and the Patriot Act only reaffirmed existing practice.
The Patriot Act was vilified for expanding the range of the surveillance tool called Carnivore, but Carnivore was only one of many surveillance tools, and itself was designed to ensure compliance with court order.
Critics of the Patriot Act also cited the computer trespassing exception to the wiretap act, which critics argued would weaken the wiretap act's privacy protections in cyberspace. But to apply the law heretofore designed for the telephone to the internet created the need for a trespasser exception.
The British legislation is a much more sweeping change, and the opposition has mounted rapidly – with good reason. It is a far cry from existing law, and it is significantly more onerous than the Patriot Act. Preventing terrorism is a duty, certainly, but there are far more obvious measures the British government could take to prevent terrorism than cracking down on internet privacy in such a dramatic way.