The Internet is a very powerful tool and this has not escaped the notice of people who wish to subvert the law. Some countries around the world have very strict controls, with massive Internet firewalls to ensure the public only sees what the government wants them to see. There is a common feeling that the UK is moving to a surveillance society, and with laws coming that will require communications providers to retain telephone and internet records and allow local councils and public bodies access to these the parallels with the old East Germany will be obvious to many.
A consultation period is running on the final phase of the Transposition of Directive 2006/24/EC which ends on 31st October 2008. The consultation period covers the areas of internet access, internet telephone service, and internet mail. At some 300 plus pages, the document is not easy going, but it is keen to point out that while the law would require retention of the fact an email went from Fred to John on 14th August 2008, the content of the email would not be recorded.
The report confirms that a number of communications providers already retain the necessary records as part of their normal business or under previous voluntary schemes. The concern of many will centre around areas like how RIPA has been used by local councils. The family in Dorset that was under surveillance for three weeks could with the new law expect the council to be trawling their email records for any communication with a school outside their catchment area.
The consultation paper talks about retention of internet connection info, e.g. where and when, internet telephony and e-mail, but does not mention other areas such as instant messaging. It is possible that due to the voice and video aspect of most instant messaging applications these will count as internet telephony. The successes under current retention policies are highlighted in the paper, but there is little talk of how false positives will be handled, and what abuse safe guards are in place. The aim of the regulations are "to ensure that this data is available for a minimum of 12 months to assist in the investigation, detection and prosecution of serious crime".
There will be concerns about those with access to these powers abusing them. One could see a local councillor perhaps abusing the powers to spy on political opponents. Most people will accept that investigations into serious crimes such as child abuse and kidnaps will benefit from the obligation to retain internet communications data but public confidence in such measures for local authorities is unlikely to be strong.