An astonishing 27.5 percent of PC Advisor readers believe the Home Office has every right to access data on the internet activity of all UK consumers in the interests of national security, according to a recent poll on the PC Advisor website.
We have to confess, we were somewhat taken aback by the sheer number of readers who appear happy to hand over their virtual privacy rights. The very nature of a democratic society involves striking a balance between respect for the privacy of its citizen, while also ensuring he or she is protected from crime. But we believe that the Home Office's intention to retain data about and snoop on the internet activity of everyone in the UK is likely to upset that balance, as well as place an unfair burden on this country's ISPs.
In the absence of the emergence of a code of practice — regarded as unlikely by almost all quarters — under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (2001), the Home Secretary is likely to make it obligatory for ISPs to keep logs of the online activity of all customers' data for at least a year. The justification is they may one day need such data for subsequent investigations into serious crime or terrorism. Data will include records of all websites visited by a customer, along with all emails sent and received. Messaging is not covered (for now).
It's not just the usual privacy liberties brigade, such as Privacy International and the Foundation for Information Policy Research which are screaming blue murder. Ispa (the Internet Service Providers Association), has labelled any such blanket policy as impossibly costly and unworkable. It points out that it would take over 360,000 CDs to store just one year's worth of customer data.
At a conservative estimate a third of the UK population — around 20 million people — regularly use the internet. That means in the course of a year the UK's ISPs would have to retain the equivalent of 72 billion CDs of data. Taking into account a steady increase in the number of internet users, the number of sites visited, burgeoning emails sent and received, increased time spent online, and it doesn't take a genius to see that we'll soon be drowning in a sea of retained data.
What's more the sheer cost of adhering to these laws — independent estimates put it at well over £100m — could put many ISPs out of business, particularly as many are currently offering broadband services with wafer-thin profit margins.
Furthermore it's quite possible that the fight against terrorism and serious crime can be won without such drastic measures. In the US — where respect for individual privacy is arguably greater than in the UK — this does not happen. The FBI prefers a more targeted scheme using so-called data preservation. This is where service providers retain data on specified individuals at the request of the authorities.
The extent of government snooping is growing and it needs to be watched. This is a Home Office that only recently abandoned plans to give a wide range of minor authorities — even local town halls — the right to request information on your surfing habits. Only an uproar from civil liberty groups forced them to back down.
In short we're asking a quarter of poll respondents to think again.