Opinion: Who’s phoning who? (with apologies to Aretha Franklin)

A year ago I heard that six degrees of separation are now down to four courtesy of the internet and social media. Some, if not most, in politics are “connectors”, people who know many and who like introducing them to each other, who make friends fast, keep them for life and remember all about them; that’s not just true of politics, but of successful people in most walks of life.

Will there be any point in let’s say 12 years time, in keeping information on who has been in touch with whom during the previous year? I choose 12 to match the age of the current legislation on surveillance. We already have huge networks of contacts. Evidence suggests we’re not afraid to use them, that most of us will help a friend of a friend if we can. The Home Office is seriously behind the times in suggesting they should start keeping records of all our telephonic contacts in an age when in fact we are all in contact with each other already even if they cannot trace it. The information is or will soon be meaningless and while it may fight one form of  crime, there are others- for example the struggle to increase the reporting of domestic violence in the mission to prevent further deaths, mainly of women- where it will be downright counter productive to have it generally known that records of all contact are kept.

I’ve visited CCTV control centres up and down England, including London. We saw no inclination at all from staff to question whether warrants were issued for valid reasons. With hundreds of thousands of applications for warrants of all sorts each year, the chances that more senior staff will take an approach that’s any more than box ticking is questionable. Take it from me that, in general, officials don’t have our rights at the front of their minds.

In the IT and telephony industry you’ll find huge teams of developers from all over the world, from places where they don’t necessarily share our ideas on privacy or confidentiality and where they have no idea of the sanctions they might face if they pay no heed to our alien notions, working in many different locations to put together the software and databases that makes modern communication possible. It’s often impossible to trace which individual did what, when  or where and occasionally there are bugs (mistakes) in software, making the evidence you gain from it imperfect to say the least and its confidentiality questionable.

Apart from the important fact that it’s wrong for the government to be trying to store even more information than it already has on each of us, all I’ve seen suggests it’s a fool’s errand to do so because all you’ll do is measure whether we’re at four degrees of separation or even fewer.

* Marisha Ray is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Candidate for the Barnet and Camden constituency; she was a London Assembly London wide list candidate in 2012 and 2016, a parliamentary candidate in a 2012 by-election, and the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.

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  • Marisha Ray 30th Aug '12 - 4:50pm

    Given the seeming backlog of awkward questions about our institutions which have not been asked during the previous decade- various enquiries are yet to report- and the fact that there are already allegations that data is insecure you raise some very pertinent points. Perhaps we should now redress the balance by strengthening the rights of the individual to their privacy, rather than making life such that only those who feel they have nothing at all to hide can make a contribution to our democracy publicly, without being accused of a form of hypocrisy or rendering themselves liable to some other threat.

    Providing data to an institution such that it could threaten to make public embarassing details from a person’s private life in a way which would be contrary to the law were it to be done by an individual, is a sure way to eventually corrupt that institution, if indeed we haven’t in our naivety already achieved that, and given the possibilities for surveillance these days that’s a real and serious threat. The knowledge which can be gained by too much surveillance is a Pandora’s Box which we need to be careful of. While I haven’t mentioned it directly above, there is of course the issue that any information collected could potentially be accessed by similar or other organisations elsewhere without our knowledge and without consent.

  • @Simon – to say nothing of of the uses such data might be put by those with the ability to hack such databases.

  • The Home Office is seriously behind the times in suggesting they should start keeping records of all our telephonic contacts in an age when in fact we are all in contact with each other already even if they cannot trace it. The information is or will soon be meaningless

    If a bomb goes off in Newry, and mobile telephone records show that of the likely suspects one was at the location when the explosive-laden vehicle was being parked, and that over the forty-eight hours either side of the blast he was in almost constant contact with three of the others (and that usually their telephone contacts are once or twice a week or even fewer), would you say that was ‘meaningless’?

    Because that is the sort of information being collected, and it seems to me not so much ‘meaningless’ as vital in investigations after-the-fact into such crimes as the Omagh bombing (were it was thanks to telephone records that the culprits were identified and eventually, no thanks to the appalling attempts by the British government to get in the way of justice, prosecuted).

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