Opinion: Why parts of the government want to store your entire internet history

On Monday I arrived back in the United Kingdom after a visit to Georgia – a beautiful country, but one with an authoritarian government. Imagine my surprise when I picked up a newspaper at Heathrow and read claims that the government was proposing to monitor and store all internet communications in the country.

We have since attempted to play down the scale of this proposal, but I am incredibly concerned that it would be far wider than is generally believed – and this is because of the technical difficulties of interception.

A key distinction that has been put forward is that these proposals will be used only to monitor ‘communications data’, not content. This ‘communications data’ would include timestamps, duration and the participants of communications – what we would call metadata in computing. We have been offered assurances that metadata and metadata alone will be stored, but it many cases this is not technologically possible. Most of the internet simply does not work this way.

Consider for example a foreign webmail provider – which are a key focus of these plans, as unlike UK-operating providers their information cannot be obtained by serving warrants. Under these proposals we would like to be able to find out who you are emailing and at what time. However, the only data they have to work with are the webpages sent to your computer by this webmail provider. This webmail may be in a foreign language; the layout of its pages is entirely arbitrary. The only way to identify emails and the metadata is to read through every single bit of information sent to your computer and pick out the relevant elements. This cannot be done automatically – no computer program could understand every language and the format of every email provider in the world. The only way to identify metadata is store content as well, then analyse it all later.

This means that this separation of content and metadata is worthless – any system that actually enforces such separation would useless as an interception tool. However, it gets worse. Remember how the proposals suggest this information should be stored for two years? As we cannot separate metadata from content in many cases there is only one technically feasible solution to meet this requirement – storing the entire internet traffic of every individual in the United Kingdom for two years. The content of every website you have visited, the data transferred by every application you use. After all, any website could actually be an email service, and any application could be exchanging instant messaging information. We cannot just store this information on suspicious individuals, otherwise the security services cannot look back on earlier communications; every single computer in the UK must be monitored.

This is the only option that provides the level of interception that is proposed – and it is a monitoring system that any dictatorship would be proud of.

Now, you might think that you could get around this by encrypting your communication. After all, the best encryption algorithms take years to crack, even with supercomputers. However, the government already has an incredibly sinister power that forces you to incriminate yourself. Encryption scrambles the content of messages, but they can be decoded with a special key. Now let’s imagine that you encrypt some of your own information – perhaps it is politically or commercially sensitive. If you don’t tell the government the key you can be sent to jail for two years – even if there is no effect on national security. You don’t even need to be suspected of criminal activity – refusing to hand over encryption keys when asked is a strict liability offence. You are simply forced to decode or go to jail.

Our Parliamentarians must stand up and kill this plan entirely – civil liberties must always be the ultimate red line for the Liberal Democrats.

* Robbie Simpson is the Vice President of Liberal Youth Scotland and is about to complete a Masters degree in Computing Science with a focus on information security.

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20 Comments

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 8th Apr '12 - 10:44am

    “Our Parliamentarians must stand up and kill this plan entirely ”

    But most of your parliamentarians are in the government! That’s why they failed to halt the NHS bill. The Liberal Democrats seem to be suffering from a split personality. The Liberal Democrats are the government; the Government brings in a bill to create a “Big Brother” form of surveillance; the Liberal Democrats say they oppose it. yet they are in government! The opportunity for your government to bring this bill in exists because you are in government, You can’t have it both ways: either you are in government or you are not and if you are in government you cannot evade your responsibility for the decisions that your government makes. If the surveillance bill becomes law you will be as responsible for creating a Big Brother society as the Tories because, no matter how much you oppose it, by keeping the Tories in power, you have created the conditions in which they can do it. If this bill becomes legislation, as it undoubtedly will, you will be as responsible for it as the Tories. Why are you always trying to evade your responsibilies for what this government is doing? If you don’t like what the Tories are doing stop supporting them and let’s have a general election.

  • John Richardson 8th Apr '12 - 10:45am

    I think it would be pretty easy to make reliable interception filters for specific sites. They could use a heuristic system for everything else accepting the risk of accidental content storage. Algorithms of this kind are pretty advanced.

    There’s not much risk of users being forced to hand over encryption keys. The most commonly used form of encryption on the internet today is SSL. These keys are generated at random on a per session basis and once the session is over the keys are lost forever. The user never sees them. Given that all of the major communications site now have the option to enable SSL (many by default) it’s a problem the government will have to overcome if their surveillance is to remain effective.

  • The data sizes would be ridiculous, and I can imagine criminal gangs setting up their own ISPs so that they can milk government cash for the data farms that would be required. Then accidentally put nothing in them.

  • The combination of the existing encryption law with logging all metadata is very interesting. If you access this foreign website through SSL it’s not possible to decode the traffic later. Same for all internet banking and shopping.
    Is this actually understood and accepted? Or if the government asked for the keys to decode the traffic are you still liable even though it’s impossible?

    If this is not a problem foreign VPN providers can carry on as they are making a mockery of the whole idea. Far from catching terrorists, or pedophiles, it will once again catch parents trying to get their child into school.

    And if VPN traffic looks too suspicious a lot of games nowadays use encryption too to prevent certain types of cheating. A bad idea, badly implemented. The country should be working out how to fix RIPA and the digital economy act not wasting energy on something so ridiculously expensive and pointless.

  • Ed: or fabricate the data algorithmically? It would be very difficult to tell the difference without spending a lot of time with the traffic data for the other side.

  • John Richardson 8th Apr '12 - 10:53am

    The Liberal Democrats seem to be suffering from a split personality.

    About 60,000 individual personalities actually. The Liberal Democrats are not a Borg collective.

  • Mack, in some areas you have a point. Not here I think.

    There is no bill. There is not yet a green paper as far as I know. What we have so far is a leaked proposal, a brief puff by the Home Secretary in the Sun, many mumble-mumble-no-decision-yet statements from Tories and pretty much wall-to-wall opposition from the LibDems. Nick Clegg, after his usual rather slow start, has said that the proposals will be discussed, and that there will be no bill in the Queen’s speech. Teresa May has this morning, I think, affirmed that there will be. Now we have a real fight on our hands.

  • Richard Dean 8th Apr '12 - 11:09am

    This story seems to have no reference at all to anything that can be linked to for further clarification. It seems far-fetched but crazy enough to be credible. The storage requirements would seem to be far in excess of anything economically possible – or probably even physically so. But it is easy to extract data from un-encrypted files and webpages, there aren’t that many languages, and isn’t some form of targetted advertising akready on Google?

  • I hope that Robbie and others with expertise or knowledge in this field are actively making contact with Clegg & Farron to make their services available.. and hopefully not just blogging and blagging about it. Don’t tell me all about it, tell them.

  • Richard Dean 8th Apr '12 - 11:18am

    I don’t think I’d trust local authorities with this kind of data at all!
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2126675/Council-snoopers-read-emails-internet-giants-forced-hand-data.html

  • Simon Titley 8th Apr '12 - 11:31am

    @Ed Wilson – You say “there is no bill”. Yes, but last Sunday, the government was briefing lobby journalists that there would be precisely such a bill included in the Queen’s Speech. By Tuesday, this had mutated into “draft proposals and a debate”.

    Nick Clegg is chair of the Home Affairs cabinet committee that has been drawing up this proposal. Only when the party erupted in protest at the beginning of the week did he rapidly change his tune. But even on Tuesday evening, in a conference call between Lib Dem bloggers and Clegg’s special advisers, the SPADs could not understand why the party was objecting (see http://aviewfromhamcommon.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/observations-on-last-nights-conference.html and http://liberalengland.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/nick-clegg-needs-to-be-in-better-touch.html).

    You are right that “we have a real fight on our hands”. But if the leader and his SPADs had been better attuned to the party and its values, this proposal would never have seen light of day in the first place.

  • @ John Richardson
    “The Liberal Democrats are not a Borg collective.”

    One of the pleasures of posting on this site is that one is often educated about arcane trivia. Not being a trekkie I had never heard of the Borg collective. However, a small amount of research provided me with the collective’s characteristics. Given the consistency with which Lib Dem MPs with one mind sheepishly support their government in the lobbies whilst asserting that they are vehemently opposed to its legislation I should say that they are very much a Borg collective and that Clegg is in the position of the collective’s “queen.” However, outside parliament the collective succumbs to a split personality. Decide for yourself; http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Borg_Collective

  • Record every Mobile phone call and text. Solve the Unemployment problem in a second !
    60 million mobile phones in UK – each making (say) 20 calls/texts a day = 1,200,000,000 each day.
    Staff to maintain site ???. Staff to investigate????
    Am I wrong or just plain stupid ?

  • “It’s likely the legislation will pass largely unchanged, but with the Lib Dems extracting important concessions over typeface and font size.” – from Twitter

    This doesn’t come from an influential commentator or a senior politician, just an ordinary person. It does, however, sum up nicely the kind of scornful comment I come across all over the place. Remember the Spitting Image David Steel in David Owen’s top pocket?

  • “Remember the Spitting Image David Steel in David Owen’s top pocket?”

    Vividly, and it was those two, by splitting the votes of the anti-Tory opposition, that kept Thatcher in power and enabled her to do all her works. Deja vu.

  • Let’s look on the positive side, at least we will have to endure less “we cannot co-operate with Labour, they are far too authoritarian” statements on this site from now on.

    This episode (together with the plans for secret courts and restrictions on the right to peaceful protest) demonstrates that, when push comes to shove, the Conservatives are just as (if not more so) authoritarian than Labour.

    Remember also that, if the Conservatives had their way, the HRA would be abolished while Mr Cameron has also been making noises about the FOI Act “furring up the machinery of government.”

  • Malcolm Todd 9th Apr '12 - 1:28pm

    @MacK “it was those two, by splitting the votes of the anti-Tory opposition, that kept Thatcher in power and enabled her to do all her works.”

    This is the same old line — a mistake, or a deliberate misrepresentation? The idea that the country simply divides into “Tories” and “anti-Tories” and that the splitting of the latter (naturally a majority) is some sort of a crime against … well, whom? “The people”, I suppose…

    It’s simply incredible to suggest that in the 1980s the only important division was between Thatcher and everyone else, and that everyone who believed in redistribution, public spending and a mixed economy was obliged to also support unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC even if they thought those policies were disastrous. “Anti-Tory” is not a philosophy, and it doesn’t translate as support for one specific alternative. Then or now.

  • MacK(Not a Lib Dem) 10th Apr '12 - 9:58am

    @Malcolm Todd

    Of course the Liberal/SDP alliance split the non Tory vote. I was there in the eighties. I am not suggesting that the anti-Tory vote was homogeneous but it was united around removing Thatcher. If the Liberal/SDP hadn’t been there we would have done it.. People began to engage in tactical voting and quite often got it wrong. Indeed, the situation was becoming so desperate for the non Thatcherite opposition that proportional representation began to seem to be the only way of removing the Thatcherite hegemony. I could say more but then I would be completely off thread.

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