Reports last summer indicated that the Brits were considering plans to store information on every phone call, email and text message sent in the UK. The proposed legislation, part of a package of amendments to the already-seriously-terrifying Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), would require everyone to present his or her passport in order to get a phone. It would then compel all communications and Internet use data from phone companies and Internet Service Providers and consolidate all this information into one massive uber-database of British subjects’ private lives and characteristic witty repartee.
The plan met opposition from civil liberties groups and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, as well as the UK’s Information Commissioner. Recall that our friends in merry old England have been a touch on edge about data security lately, since the government managed to lose two discs with information on every family with a child under the age of 16. This and other data breach gaffes make one wonder just what sort of operation the chaps in charge were running before they came into office (Answer: here).
However, we learned this week that senior officials within the Home Office (roughly the equivalent of our Department of Homeland Security) have objected to the database plan and appear to have blocked it from going forward…for now. Although this appears to be just one of several equally intrusive schemes on the table, it is encouraging to hear dissenting voices in the government itself call the plan like it is: “impractical, disproportionate, politically unattractive and possibly unlawful from a human rights perspective.”
It is worth pausing to consider how unlikely this scenario seems here in the United States. After eight years of the Bush administration eviscerating privacy rights and civil liberties (an activity that appears to heed no lame duck status), the response from within the government is still more whimper than howl. Contrast this with British shadow Home Secretary David Davis’s resignation in June in protest against “the slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms by this Government.”
Proximity to the realization of a total surveillance society may account for some of the increased public rebellion in the UK. In the last ten years, the Brits have led the way in expanded DNA databanks, widespread closed circuit TV, and other erosions of privacy, but we are not far behind them. Just as we would have been wise sixty years ago to listen to the forewarnings of an Englishman by the birth-name of Eric Blair, we would do well to pay attention to our friends across the pond as they again sound the alarm.
If we fail to do so, our privacy may go the way of a certain famous British parrot.