Forget the talk about how long they’ll be tracking your data. Forget who will give them permission to peek into your records. Forget, if you can, the emotive language used to frame government legislation so it appears to be a reasonable response to ‘terrorists’ and ‘paedophiles’. These are grim days for individual freedom. This is the week when the British government said that they suspect you’re guilty of a crime. It’s just that they can’t say which crime it is they think you’ll commit in the next twelve months.
The draft Investigatory Powers Bill, published on Wednesday, presumes guilt before innocence. So much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re living in a short story by Philip K. Dick, master of the paranoid future. Remember ‘The Minority Report’, made into a film by Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise? It involved ‘precogs’ able to see into the future and direct the police to arrest people for crimes they had yet to commit. We’re not quite at that stage but collecting evidence against every single person using the internet in the UK to be used as evidence in future prosecutions seems like it’s only one short step away.
The fact that the general public aren’t angry at the prospect of bulk data collection might have to do with people’s ignorance of the technologies involved. Technology works in vague ways for most of us. You enter a web address into a browser and pages appear. How that happens is largely inconsequential. We care nothing about DNS and transfer protocols. We just assume that there’s a big computer out there that does ‘things’ and we’re happy not to know the details. We invest faith in it working but also trust that things are secure. We assume it’s secure because there’s no evidence otherwise. We live blissful in our ignorance.
Yet think about it in more human terms. Imagine that deep inside MI5 headquarters sits a hardbound journal in which your every movement is written out in longhand. The book wouldn’t record which room you were in or what you were doing. However, it would detail every place you visit, every shop you enter, and it would also record where you work, even if it wouldn’t identify which department. Now, even if a judge had to give permission before a third party could access that log, would you feel happy that such a log existed? Does that world sound vaguely Kafkaesque? Is that how you imagined freedom operates?
This is not, of course, the first time the government have wanted to collect our data. You might remember the suggestion by Lord Justice Sedley in 2007 that the entire population of the UK (along with all visitors to these shores) should submit their DNA to a database. ‘We have a situation where if you happen to have been in the hands of the police, then your DNA is on permanent record. If you haven’t, it isn’t,’ he said. ‘It also means that a great many people who are walking the streets, and whose DNA would show them guilty of crimes, go free.’
That might sound vaguely familiar. In his ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England’, published in the 1760s, the English jurist and Tory, William Blackstone, formulated his famous dictum known as Blackstone’s ratio: ‘It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer’. Lord Justice Sedley’s words sound like a twisted version of Blackstone’s: better that ten persons be considered guilty rather than one person be wrongly declared innocent.
The irony in all this is that a compulsory DNA database might be relatively benign. It’s just that we tend to feel protective about our DNA because it is comes from our physical being. Science tells us to worship DNA yet, in practical terms, DNA can really only be used to identify the person who commits a crime. Scientists can’t yet clone us and, in fact, there are few insightful facts that science can extract from a person’s DNA. It doesn’t help us intuit a person’s social class, education or interests. Know the title of a person’s morning newspaper, however, and you can do just that. That brings us back to the Investigatory Powers Bill which would give authorities the power to extrapolate that kind of information from every website you visit…
Take, for example, my own recent browsing history picked from the past month. Among the many sites I’ve visited, I’ve repeatedly logged on to: thewhatandthewhy.com, the-spine.com, theguardian.com, eurogamer.net, independent.co.uk, imdb.com, ccfa.org, evanscycles.com, everydayhealth.com, thetimes.co.uk, liverpoolfc.com, treehugger.com, halfords.com, bikeforums.net, coch.nhs.uk, abbeytaxis.co.uk. thebuglepodcast.com, barclays.com, merseytravel.co.uk, redandwhitekop.com, polygon.com, and wilko.com. What might that tell you about me? That I’m a blogger, a cyclist, a supporter of Liverpool football club, a computer gamer, a fan of topical satire, a shopper who likes bargains?
If you could count the number of times I read those pages, however, you would drill down to more specific details. You’d discover that I’m a bigger fan of football than I am a fan of cycling but you would also know that my visits to Evan Cycles were hourly up to the 28th of the month when I suddenly started to visit Halfords. That ended on the 29th when I also checked my bank balance. I generated no internet traffic on the afternoon of the 30th but did access the Merseytravel website earlier in the day. I don’t think it would take a genius to deduce that, after days of research, I went out that afternoon, used public transport, and bought a new bike from Halfords having decided that Evans Cycles was simply too expensive.
If you think that’s information you’d be happy to share with the government, then also consider that the same data reveals that I repeatedly browsed Chester hospital’s website and two days later started to research specific medical conditions. Again: deduce what you can. Either I or a member of my family visited hospital for specific diagnosis or treatments for a serious stomach complaint and I (or we) travelled part of the way by taxi.
But I’ve already revealed more information about myself than I guess you’d feel comfortable sharing without your permission. Now imagine how complex a profile you could build of a person by accessing a full year of their browsing data. Imagine what the government could learn about you had they access to every site you visited. Are you still happy with the government’s proposals?
‘I would not open windows into men’s souls,’ said Elizabeth I.
‘But I could,’ might be the boast of her first cousin, fourteen times removed. Or, at least, Elizabeth II‘s government might soon be able to make that claim.
David Waywell writes and draws at The Spine.