Snooper’s Charter – oppressive and useless in equal measure

The government wants ISPs to store everyone’s browser history. Not the least intrusive thing ever proposed, and a world first for a democracy. Should we be proud to be leading the pack in surveillance of our own population – again? (We’ve the most CCTV cameras per capita too, remember).

Let’s count the ways in which this won’t work:

  1. If you’re using any kind of shared internet connection – at work, in a café, on the train, in the street.
  2. If you use a VPN.
  3. If you use an open proxy.
  4. If you use TOR.

The last three are all commonly used by political dissidents in repressive regimes. Ironically, TOR – which has a (deserved) reputation in the West as a pit of depravity – was originally funded by the US government precisely to provide political dissidents with a way of eluding surveillance by repressive regimes.

There are only two cases in which this will have the chance to provide information of evidential quality about an individual’s activities. If you live alone, have a secure WiFi password which you’ve shared with no-one else, and you aren’t participating in any of the various WiFi sharing schemes like BT-with-FON or Virgin Media’s shared WiFi plan. Or if you’re browsing from a phone or tablet using mobile data (3G or 4G) rather than WiFi, with a SIM that’s in your name. And if, in either case, you’re not using a VPN, or a proxy, or TOR. In every other circumstance, it will be impossible to ascribe the browsing history to an individual with certainty – unless they include personally identifiable information in the URLs they visit – so this isn’t evidence-gathering, it’s the construction of suspicion.

If this goes ahead, and the ISPs play ball (it’s not an insignificant technological ask, either), we can be sure of at least two things: a number of OAPs will be raided by the police at 2am because they didn’t set a WiFi password and the nice terrorist next door has taken advantage of their kindness; and using a VPN, a proxy or TOR will immediately put you on one or more lists of undesirables. In fact, we think the NSA is already doing this.

It may catch some otherwise clueless paedophiles and it might give a slightly better picture of trends in radicalisation. It will almost certainly drive actual terrorists, crooks and abusers even deeper underground, and it’s highly unlikely to trip up anyone with even the most basic privacy skills.

On the other hand, it’ll give the government access to more information, more of the time, about more of its citizens than any previous method of surveillance. I’m not entirely convinced this is a good thing. Are you?

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