Reporters Without Borders strongly condemns a bill allowing monitoring of all phone calls, text messages, emails and other electronic communications that the British government plans to submit to parliament in the coming weeks.
“We are shocked to hear more and more supposedly democratic countries such as India, France, Australia and now the United Kingdom expressing a desire to adopt the kind of systematic monitoring of communications used by the planet’s most repressive regimes,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The British government’s proposed bill is disproportionate and dangerous, and its effectiveness is not guaranteed. By placing all of its citizens under surveillance, it would have the effect of encouraging its targets to use easily accessible anonymization methods. And its implementation without reference to the courts could open the way to all kinds of abuses.
“The introduction of this system would turn Internet Service Providers and mobile phone operators into police auxiliaries. This is not just open to criticism in principle. It would encounter major legal, technical and financial obstacles in practice. Britain, the land of habeas corpus, must continue to set an example as regards the protection of individual rights and freedoms.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “We urge the British government to abandon this bill and to consider other ways to fulfil its duty to combat terrorism, ways that respect individual freedoms and the right to privacy.”
The Home Office (interior ministry) confirmed yesterday that it is preparing a bill that would give the British intelligence services access to all the telephone and electronic communication records of its citizens. A Home Office spokesman said the bill, which would enable the authorities to combat “serious crime and terrorism” more effectively, would come before parliament as soon as room was found in the legislative calendar.
According to government and ruling coalition representatives, ISPs, phone operators and website hosting companies would have to install equipment that would allow Britain’s leading signals intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), real-time access to any person’s communication records and browsing history without referring to a court and regardless of the requirements of any ongoing investigation.
As things stand, Britain’s law enforcement agencies can only access such information when the person is being investigated and after obtaining ministerial approval.
Under the proposed bill, the authorities would have a free hand to compile lists of the phone calls, emails and SMS message exchanged between any individuals, with their frequency and length, as well as the websites visited by any person. Special authorization would however be necessary to access the content of the communications.
Reporters Without Borders urges the British authorities to engage in fully transparent consultations with Internet companies before proceeding. Many questions need answering. Who will be responsible for managing and protecting the data gathering by this surveillance system? How long would data be kept?
In a June 2011 report, United Nations special rapporteur for freedom of expression Frank La Rue voiced alarm at the tendency of some government to reinforce their ability to monitor the activities of Internet users without providing sufficient guarantees against abuses and without data protection laws that specify the purpose for which the data is used, how it is kept and for how long.
La Rue’s report also stressed that the right to privacy should only be curtailed in “exceptional circumstances” and never systematically.
A similar bill was considered by the previous Labour government but was abandoned because of an outcry from civil society. There was renewed concern about the current government’s requests for the cooperation of the BlackBerry smartphone’s manufacturer and the main British TV stations in identifying the participants in the London riots in the summer of 2011, and about its threat to restrict access to instant messaging, social networks and microblogs.