from the time-for-another-solzhenitsyn dept
The UK has the sad distinction of leading the way in the West when it comes to playing up the terrorism threat to justify the introduction of disproportionate surveillance laws. One of the favorite rhetorical tricks employed here is to invoke the "capabilities gap": this refers to the fact that the security services are unable to capture all communications in the same way they once could. But it's a misleading comparison.
It's true that it was easier to spy on the public's communications in the past; the percentage of traffic that can be tracked today may be lower, but the overall quantity of information available to the police and security forces is vastly greater, simply because the range of digital communications is so wide, and their use in everyday life so pervasive. This means that it is quite unnecessary to put in place even more intrusive monitoring in order to gain equivalent amounts of relevant information. However, the UK's Home Secretary, Theresa May, didn't let a little thing like the facts get in the way when she introduced yet another counter-terrorist bill earlier this week:
I remain passionately convinced of the need to address the capabilities gap the authorities face when it comes to communications data. And I am pleased to say that the Bill will go some way to bridging that gap. It will therefore require internet providers to retain Internet Protocol -- or IP -- address data to identify individual users of internet services.
That might seem a curious thing to introduce, since UK ISPs are already required to store metadata. A useful post from the Open Rights Group (ORG) explains this is all about the rise of mobile Internet use:
The new proposal, while being consistent with existing arrangements for ISPs in the UK, is another proposal for blanket retention beyond what is needed for business purposes.
It is for this reason that the port number for each connection must also be stored under the new proposals. But as ORG goes on to point out, it would be far better if mobile phone companies were encouraged to upgrade their systems to IPv6, which has such an abundance of addresses that this kind of quick fix would be unnecessary. Even then, such addresses would only identify a device, not who was using it at any given time.
In any case, this is a rather backward proposal, dealing with a problem that exists because the mobile companies continue to rely on out of date technology. To take a moment to explain: the Internet is famously running out of addresses (numbers that identify a point on the Internet – Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) addresses).
To deal with the lack of address space, mobile companies use a technology called "Network Address Translation" or NAT, which allows several devices to share the same IP address. Most people use this at home to allow two or three computers to use the ADSL or cable connection, However the mobile companies do this at a far greater scale called "Carrier Grade NAT" -- and there will be hundreds of different people using the same IP address.
Similarly, ORG also notes that this blanket retention could fall foul of a recent ruling by the European Union's Court of Justice that data retention must be "limited to what is strictly necessary. Indeed, because all IP addresses and port numbers are retained, the fear has to be that sooner or later they will be used in an attempt to identify those accused of copyright infringement -- as in Australia.
However, it seems unlikely that the UK government will worry about these kind of details given that the new counter-terrorism and security bill includes even more troubling provisions, such as the following:
in response to the increased threat we face and in response to the police and security services telling us this is what they need, we will legislate to allow TPIM [Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures] subjects to be relocated to different parts of the country.
Yes, you read that correctly: the new bill will introduce internal exile for the UK. The parallels between the UK and Soviet Russia become more painfully apparent by the day.