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Will Political Tensions push Internet Surveillance plans?

16 · JAN ·2015

The events that unfolded in Paris last week shocked the world, and even though the dust is yet to settle on this tragic incident there are already those asking what could have been done to prevent it. When it comes to terrorism there has been an ongoing claim by intelligence experts that the Internet needs to be more closely monitored in order to prevent such attacks from happening in the first place, with many believing that what happened in Paris should act as a catalyst.

On Monday Prime Minister David Cameron attended the unity march in Paris and afterwards announced in a speech that if he won the General Election in May he would push for a new communications data bill to go ahead. The bill would mean that security services would be able to monitor Internet and phone usage in the UK more closely as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would be legally required to store their customers’ Internet, email and mobile phone activity.

Mr Cameron said: “I think we cannot allow modern forms of communication to be exempt from the ability, in extremis, with a warrant signed by the Home Secretary, to be exempt from being listened to. That is my very clear view and if I am Prime Minister after the next election I will make sure we legislate accordingly. Obviously we are in a Coalition. We have made progress on this issue by passing the new law which makes sure we protect some of the abilities we have to stop terrorists.”

Fellow Conservative and London Mayor Boris Johnson supported the Prime Minister’s view, and said: "You've got to have a very tough security solution, you've got to be absolutely determined to monitor these people. You've got to know where they are and who they are talking to. I'm not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people's emails and mobile phone conversations. If they're a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.”

However, there are those that are against what is commonly being called the “snoopers’ charter”, including Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg. Responding to Mr Cameron’s speech, he said: "Privacy is a qualified right. If someone wants to do us harm, we should be able to break their privacy and go after their communications. But the snoopers' charter was not about intercepting communications.

"It was about storing a record of all your social media activity, of every website you have visited of every single individual in this country, of people who would never dream of doing anyone else any harm, would never dream of becoming a terrorist or having anything to do with extremist ideologies. The question we need to ask ourselves, in a free, open society as we defend our values against the abhorrent attacks we saw in Paris, is where do you draw the line?"

Other countries who attended the emergency Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBA) meeting after the attacks last week agreed that more needs to be done in order to protect their nations from terrorism. In a joint statement, eleven EU ministers said that it is “essential” for ISPs to cooperate with them when it comes to national security, and that on February 12th they will be attending a summit to discuss how they can reinforce this.

However, increasing Internet surveillance may never truly protect countries from terrorism. As with computer viruses, even the most robust systems are unable to guarantee nothing will ever slip through, which means users may be giving up their privacy without being rewarded the promise of total security.

Events such as what happened at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week only push proposals for increased Internet surveillance plans further forward. However, it is important that governments do not act upon knee-jerk reactions to such events, as Internet security and surveillance is complicated both in ethical and technical terms. The line between privacy and security is therefore moving ever closer, with significant changes on the horizon.

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Posted by Sanita Karra