While politicians are convinced that Murdoch’s press has over-stepped the mark by routine hacking of citizen’s phones, let’s remember that plans for mass, pervasive hacking of our phones and emails is still sat waiting for revival by the Home Office.
These plans, called Intercept Modernisation, began under Labour. The ultimate idea is simple: without your permission, every phone company and Internet Service Provider is obliged to hack your phone and internet traffic, and store information about who you are talking to, and when.
Theresa May this week launched the Government's new counter-terrorism strategy, which includes not details regarding 'the ability of the security services and the police to access such communications data and track the use of mobiles, email and other such data transfers'. But there were also comments on the return of the 'intercept modernisation', which involves a more comprehensive storage of and access to everyone’s communications. (See the write-up from RUSI, where the Minister delivered her speech, here).
Communications providers would be obliged to do such 'hacking' of every citizens’ email and phone communications, and store the results for perhaps a couple of years. Police and law enforcement agencies would then be able to request the hacked information from the companies.
The difference between Murdoch’s hacking and Intercept Modernisation is twofold: while what you say wouldn’t be kept, the record of every single message by every single citizen will be.
Murdoch’s practices throw up another very serious question that politicians should ask themselves, when thinking about creating these enormous vaults of unnecessary information: you do not know who will try to access and use that information.
But you can guess that sooner or later, people’s privacy will be abused, either through intrusive commercial uses like behavioural advertising, or by simple unpleasant muck-raking.
Intercept modernisation is not the only large database that journalists and law enforcement could, in the future, seek to abuse. We already oblige telephone and Internet companies to store the information they already collect – like phone bills and Internet logs; and information about your emails if you use your ISP for email, rather than a service like Hotmail or gmail. And many governments, although not ours, have found that such obligations are unconstitutional violations of our right to privacy.
Then, if you travel this summer, you could do well to remember that UK governments want access to your cross-border travel information for a decade or more: and intend to make sure the USA and Australia have access too.
This information – your Passenger Name Record - will be stored several databases containing details of EU citizens’ movements for up to 15 years. The proposals are being pushed in the name of anti-terrorism. But storing and searching databases about you and me is both a privacy risk of the sort that Murdoch’s press have been adept in exploiting, and an assumption that we may be guilty.
It’s time for our government to rethink and reinforce our right to privacy: and for the UK to drop its plans for state-mandated, mass phone and email hacking.