Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching you

Mike Harris

Man Sitting On A Balcony And Smoking A Cigarette Surfs The… News Photo Getty Images UK 117302268 161735 275x300 Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching youWide-eyed internet visionaries told us technology would free its users from the iron grip of states, with the internet blind to borders and not respecting the dictats of bureaucrats. Instead technology is making dystopia not just possible, but cheap. Unthinkingly we’re sending our most private data across the internet thinking it a private space. Exploiting this weakness, Western technology companies have spotted a market for surveillance equipment that allows governments to hoover up data – and use it to spy on their citizens. Much of this technology has been exported to authoritarian states, but as we are discovering, if you allow British firms to flout human rights abroad, the rot begins to set in at home.

Gamma Group is run from a non-descript warehouse unit in a commercial park on the edge of Andover. This blandness is a deceit. Gamma sell a product called FinFisher, a piece of software that infects a computer and takes full control of it, allowing Skype calls to be intercepted and every keystroke the user types to be sent across the internet to another computer. The software is so sophisticated human rights groups initially couldn’t even prove it existed.  Now, the University of Toronto Munk School has published research said to show that Bahraini activists have been targeted using FinFisher.

After opening emails with titles like “Torture reports on Nabeel Rajab” (a leading human rights activist now imprisonedclear1x1 Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching you) their computers were reportedly infected and their personal data sent to an undisclosed third party. The government of Bahrain denies it was behind the apparent deliberate sabotage.clear1x1 Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching youspacer Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching youspacer Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching youclear1x1 Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching you However, opposition activists are now panicked fearing their security has been breached. In response, Gamma Group reportedly said in a July 23 email that it can’t comment on any individual customers and that Gamma complies with the export regulations of the U.K., U.S. and  Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching youspacer Communications Data Bill: Big Brother will be watching youGermany. It added that FinFisher is a tool for monitoring criminals and to reduce the risk of abuse of its products the company only sells the product to governments.

Meanwhile in Sweden telecoms giant Teliasonera has, according to a television documentary, sold surveillance equipment to almost the entire roll call of degenerate post-Soviet regimes: Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Belarus. In response to the documentary, a spokeswoman for Teliasonera said that “police tap into information from telecom networks to fight crime” and “the rules for how far their authority goes are different from country to country.” When pressed about complicity in human rights violations, she reportedly declined to comment on why security agencies were being given access to telecom buildings in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

One Teliasonera source told news show Uppdrag Granskning: “The Arab Spring prompted the regimes to tighten their surveillance… There’s no limit to how much wiretapping is done, none at all.” Teliasonera’s equipment gives security services the capacity to monitor everything in real time – from the location of mobile phone users, their calls and SMS messages, to their emails and Facebook messages.

As Irina Bogdanova told Index on Censorship, she believes that surveillance equipment was used to locate her brother, former political prisoner Andrei Sannikov, using the signal from his mobile phone. Sannikov, a presidential candidate in 2010’s rigged elections, was stopped whilst hidden in the back of a vehicle travelling across Minsk. During his trial recordings of his private phone calls were played to the court. In a rigged legal system, the KGB didn’t need to do this, but it was a clear signal to other opposition figures that the state is watching their every move.

I can vouch for the effectiveness of surveillance in distilling fear. I flew into Belarus the day Oleg Bebenin, a human rights activist, was found dead in suspicious circumstances. After making a series of calls to London to tell colleagues I thought Oleg had been murdered, my mobile was cut off whilst I was stood alone in the streets of Minsk. My contacts in Belarus also had their mobile phones disconnected.

The British government has the powers under the Export Control Act 2002 to stop the export of any equipment that can be used to breach human rights, but with many surveillance products it has seemingly chosen not to do so. The situation is so grave that Privacy International is preparing to take the government to court to force it to take action. Yet, it isn’t just the use of this technology abroad which is of concern. The debate is moving much closer to home.

In Britain, the government is proposing legislation (the Communications Data Bill) that will grant the Home Secretary the power to blanket retain data on every citizen for an undefined purpose. It won’t require judicial approval – but potentially every text message, every Facebook message, every phone call, every email from everyone in Britain would be stored on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. If the Bill passes, companies will have to collect data they don’t currently collect and the Home Secretary will be able to ask manufacturers of communications equipment to install hardware such as ‘black boxes’ on their products to make spying easier. This proposed scale of state surveillance will add the UK to the ranks of countries such as Kazakhstan, China and Iran. This total population monitoring would break the fundamental principle that a judge and court order is required before the state invades the privacy of its citizens by holding their personal data.

Five years ago the mobile phone you carried in your pocket could pin-point you in an urban area with a margin of error of approximately 50 metres; on the latest phones it’s around 2.5 metres. Yet, we still haven’t woken up to the possibility of technology enabling states to monitor individuals on a scale unimaginable to even the wildest of science fiction writers just a generation ago. This surveillance is being used right now in authoritarian regimes to silence opposition, as the market for this technology grows with little interference from Western governments, it will become cheaper. Once it becomes almost priceless for Western governments to monitor all our data, the arguments for allowing private communication could become drowned out by the desire for public order and safety. Then the chill on free speech will be complete.

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  • Mike Palmer

    Surveillance is something that has interested me for years & whenever a book, documentary or article comes out about it, I’ll read it. I think history shows that whenever it has been expedient British governments have carried out mass surveillance without regard for any specific law (that I am aware). Listening to Radio 4’s documentary ‘The People’s Post’ earlier this year it mentioned that Cromwell’s government found it useful to maintain the postal system after the Civil War as means of uncovering royalist plots by intercepting & reading letters. The recent documentary ‘Secrets of the Blitz’ on the Discovery History channel revealed that Churchill’s government during the Second World War resorted to similar methods (also tapping telephones & using secret informants like doctors who’d been confided in by their patients) to keep an eye on morale. Bertie Ahern has said he had to develop a system during the Good Friday agreement when he talked to Tony Blair so the PM’s staff & MI5 couldn’t record them (I’m not sure if the Wilson Doctrine counted in that situation & it does suggest MI5 are beyond Downing Street’s control). And we now live in an age where local councils (i.e. Southampton) seem to think it is quite acceptable to tape the conversations between taxi drivers & passengers for some kind of safety reason. It strikes me that the propensity of various authorities is to always want to collect more information, often “just in case”. It doesn’t mean that they’re actively looking through the data (unless they’re the NSA or GCHQ who use the world’s most powerful supercomputers to do that automatically). It’s not just governments- advertisers & supermarkets like to know people’s tastes so they know how to target them; employers want to check out people’s Facebook pages to see if they’re not some drunken moron (if the Daily Mail is to be believed we’ve got to the stage where NOT having a Facebook page can be a red flag in itself!) We’re rapidly entering an age where it will soon be possible to know everything about us as individuals: where we are; what our beliefs & likes & dislikes are; etc. Technology is getting better all the time. We may crave privacy but we’ve traded it for the convenience of technology.

  • Wynton Smith

    How so? There are so many ways to stay off-radar by using Deep Web techniques that I seriously doubt anyone can find you, let alone read your emails and track down bloggers, etc.

  • bogwart

    I know some of the ways, but even if I knew more I wouldn’t publish them on an open site. But even using TOR and IPV6 you can be found. Bear in mind that the foundations for the Deep Web were researched initially by the US Naval Research Laboratory some seven of eight years ago and you have an idea. I am quite sure there are back doors into a lot of systems which use the .onion suffix, just as Microsoft was compelled to leave back doors (and use less encryption) in versions of IE sold outside the US.
    I am not saying that DW is easy or, perhaps more importantly, safe – bearing in mind the ineptitude of the average user. What I *am* saying is that NSA has the best hackers and coders out there, and I was running monitoring programs there I wouldn’t be looking to nab drug runners and paedos when there are more important targets that want to stay under the radar.
    Anything as big as Deep Web, and you know we’re talking about an entity several times bigger than the visible Web. The only real problem is safety and navigation, and the Tails OS distro can help a lot with the latter.
    IMO it’s the ‘dark matter’ (as in physics) which I would concentrate on if I was looking for specifics.

  • Mups Sete

    They aren’t using this technology to *actually* stop terrorism, terrorism is just an excuse, and a difficult one to argue against. They actually want terrorist attacks to continue because that gives them free reign to implement whatever draconian measures they want. When people are in shock and scared.. they’ll let the government do anything it likes. And the government wants more than anything to stop any opposition to its continued power.

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