Keeping an eye on UK developments

Karlin Lillington has an interesting story in today’s Irish Times on recent UK developments in surveillance and what they might mean for Ireland. Here’s an excerpt:

NET RESULTS: When it comes to abuse of privacy, where Britain goes, Ireland tends to follow. That’s why we should be worried – very worried – about developments across the Irish Sea that emerged as the year rolled over into 2009, writes Karlin Lillington.

First came a New Year’s Eve story in the Guardian that home secretary Jacqui Smith will propose the creation of a single giant communications database and the option of outsourcing the storage of all the personal details held under the UK’s data retention regime to a private firm.

That means potentially that a single repository – a massive, national communications database – would hold all the details about, though not the content of, everyone’s e-mails, phone calls, faxes, text messages and internet use.

The same array of data is retained in Ireland as well, though at the moment, as is the case in Britain, data is retained by the communications providers, not in a central database.

Gathering such a spread of private information into a single database would create a “hellhouse” of personal private data that would not only be vulnerable to security breaches on a massive scale but would prove too great a temptation for law enforcement, according to Britain’s former director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken McDonald.

McDonald was scathing in his criticism of the idea. “Authorisations for access might be written into statute,” he told the Guardian. “But none of this means anything. All history tells us that assurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis, the locks would loosen.”

While “security” would be cited as the main impetus for such a database, “the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy that would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile” and bring an “ugly future”, he said.

One of the areas she points out – remote searches or the ability of the police to remotely hack into your computer to find evidence or monitor your activity – will certainly be one of the big issues of 2009. While Irish law doesn’t currently deal with this issue, there are moves at EU level to encourage (and possibly eventually require) all member states to allow remote searches. This becomes more worrying when combined with a growing law enforcement desire to be able to conduct “remote cross border searches” – that is, for the police in country A to be able to hack into a computer in country B. This strategy – also known as “chasing bits across borders” presents its own problems for privacy and especially accountability.