The UK is working on proposals for national electronic surveillance that could monitor every electronic message sent and received by its citizens.
This follows the 2008 abandonment of a gigantic government database that would have tracked UK phone and email communications, the AP reports. It appears that the UK government is back at it now, but perhaps with a somewhat different approach.
Recent plans were reportedly disclosed to the Internet Service Providers’ Association by Britain’s Home Office. The Home Office has not said much other than to say that an announcement would initially need to come from Parliament — and perhaps relatively soon. There have not been disclosures about how a new government surveillance service would function, or whether it would be subject to judicial oversight.
Apparently, a spokesman for the Home Office has said that any new surveillance system would not dig into the contents of electronic communications. Rather, it would look into “the who, what, where and when.” Of course, such revelations can yield all sorts of information that might be otherwise private in nature.
Obviously, the intent behind any new UK government surveillance program would be to help law enforcement root out terrorism and crime to protect the public. However, the concern is that a broad-based surveillance system that monitors wide swaths of electronic communications by citizens could do more to infringe on privacy than to protect the public.
In addition, setting up such a massive surveillance system could be hugely expensive. And some taxpayers may not be interested in having their own money spent so that the government can watch them like George Orwell envisioned in his novel 1984.
The devil is in the details, of course. If the UK can devise a government surveillance system that protects the public from harm while not infringing on privacy and at not too fantastic a cost, perhaps it would be seriously considered. However, if the opposite is true, there could be a public outcry against such a system, as happened previously in 2008.
Eric Sinrod is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP (http://www.duanemorris.com) where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. His Web site is http://www.sinrodlaw.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod’s columns, please send an email to him with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s law firm or its individual partners.