New UK law could give the government the right to monitor communication and online activity

PrivacyNew legislation in Britain could give the Government Communication Headquarters, or GCHQ, the right to access telephone calls, SMS messages, emails and the online activity of any British citizen without obtaining a warrant.

Special hardware installed with ISPs would provide the GCHQ with the ability to monitor citizens in real-time, and although the exact content of emails and messages would be off-limits; recipients, time, duration and frequency of conversations, plus a list of websites being visited, would all be logged.

Rather than focus on criminal or terrorist activity, the law seems to apply to everyone, and despite a warrant still being needed to gain access to actual conversations, it has been labelled as “a way to make it easier for the government to eavesdrop on vast numbers of people.”

On the other hand, a Home Office spokesperson told The Guardian that the law was “vital” for law enforcement to “investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.”

Second try

The same piece of legislation previously appeared back in 2009, but was dropped following public outrage and pressure from political parties and civil rights groups.

Arguments for and against the system were the same too, with the government calling it an “essential tool … to track murderers and pedophiles,” while campaigners described it “more intrusive than any police state in history.”

It’s also being likened to the European Union’s Data Retention Directive, which requires states to collect and store communication information, and was initially enforced and then over-turned in Germany back in 2010.

Will it pass?

The law is expected to be announced during the Queen’s Speech on 9 May, but would still need to be approved in Parliament before it become operational.

Civil rights groups, campaigners against the intrusion of privacy and so on — in fact, all those against the legislation back in 2009, plus some more for good luck we expect — will make themselves heard between now and then too, and the law is likely to be met with considerable opposition by the public.

There’s also the cost of the project to consider, which although hasn’t been mentioned this time, was previously said to be around £2 billion, including compensation to the communication companies for the extra work involved. As this estimate comes from 2009, it’s unlikely to be less than what would be required today.

Will it be recognized as the “absolute attack on privacy online” that civil rights groups are describing it as, or, in the year that London is hosting the Olympic Games, can this new law be pushed through under the guise of an essential increase in anti-terrorism measures and security?

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