The BBC today reported that MI5, the British intelligence service, has been secretly collecting huge amounts of mobile phone data from UK citizens over the course of the last decade.
The ‘revelations’ came following the unveiling of the revised ‘snooper’s charter‘, which gives the government an Orwellian level of control over how it chooses to collect data en masse and bypass encryption standards. It’ll also require ISPs to keep a record of the websites you visit for an entire year.
During Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech, she referred to how security services have been allowed to access data under the 1984 Telecommunications Act.
The program, which according to the BBC was so secretive only a few people within MI5 knew about it, collected bulk records of phone calls that companies were required to hand over on demand. Data collected didn’t include the content of the calls, which is part of the justification being used by the government in formalizing the approach publicly.
For anyone thinking that sounds like a wholly reasonable approach, a timely reminder of why metadata collection is an impingement on your privacy follows from the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
They know you rang a phone sex service at 2:24 am and spoke for 18 minutes. But they don’t know what you talked about.
They know you called the suicide prevention hotline from the Golden Gate Bridge. But the topic of the call remains a secret.
They know you spoke with an HIV testing service, then your doctor, then your health insurance company in the same hour. But they don’t know what was discussed.
They know you received a call from the local NRA office while it was having a campaign against gun legislation, and then called your senators and congressional representatives immediately after. But the content of those calls remains safe from government intrusion.
They know you called a gynecologist, spoke for a half hour, and then called the local Planned Parenthood’s number later that day. But nobody knows what you spoke about.
While the proposals put forward are undoubtedly overreaching, today’s revelation that spy services have been snooping on phone data for more than 10 years comes as no surprise at all.
With Snowden’s reveal of the US and UK’s mass spying programs and the subsequent revelations about politicians and heads of state being surveilled, it’d be more surprising if the UK hadn’t been doing it in secret for years already.
And to think, MI5’s security chief has been crowing on about how encryption is making the job of catching terrorists too hard.
Living in a state of perpetual supervision and pseudo-safety created by allowing security services to snoop on every part of our lives isn’t preferable to the alternative and sets a dangerous precedent for the future.