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Surveillance, by finishing-school on Flickr (cc)Surveillance, by finishing-school on Flickr (cc)There are petitions everywhere. Tech-savvy people are outraged. The Telegraph, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times publish one story after another about it. What is it? The Big Snoop, or at least, we’ll call it that.

It all started on April 1 (not a joke!) with an article by David Leppard entitled Government to snoop on all emails published in the Sunday Times. If the title sounds Orwellian, consider this: “Under plans expected to be announced in the Queen’s speech next month, internet companies will be told to install thousands of pieces of hardware to allow GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping centre, to scrutinise “on demand” every phone call made, text message and email sent and website accessed in real time.”

What’s at stake here, is the control by the United Kingdom of all communications that are made from, to or within the British territory. “Anyone planning major crimes using the internet will probably use one of the very many ways to not have the source or destination of their communications logged in the UK jurisdiction. Instead such capabilities to turn on specific monitoring of traffic might well be used for petty crime and civil society activists,” specifies Cedric Knight of GreenNet, a London-based internet service provider. On a practical level, he adds that “all the examples the government gave – where disclosed data has been useful for crimes or emergency situations – have been based on mobile geolocation data where an investigation was already under way. Evidence that internet data, let alone blanket surveillance, is useful is scanty. So far as I can see, non-existent.”

Knight is convinced that the latest government data retention and communication surveillance plans are not only ill-informed. It’s the process in itself that makes no sense to him. “The best guess is the plans are driven by government-hired ‘experts’ who are actually the same people who sell the surveillance equipment. It’s unlikely to be for GCHQ. I think it’s very important that the plans are brought out in the open so techies and the general public can look at them before they are drafted and introduced in Parliament.”

Looking beyond today’s talk of the town, Gus Hosein, executive director at Privacy international, authored a very clear text on April 3rd about the future impact of the Big Snoop, asking “What’s the big deal?” And the answer was close by: “The government is proposing to force companies to collect information they have no business collecting in the first place – information on everyone’s communications, all of the time. No democratic country has pursued a similar policy to date – the UK will find itself aligned with China and Iran if this proposal goes ahead. There is also a danger that the CCDP [surveillance authority] will create a ‘blueprint’ and the policy will spread abroad, meaning that the Internet could be a very different place in five years’ time.”

The measure captures quite a lot of attention from human rights groups. “We are watching developments in the United Kingdom very closely because this is a strong signal of new benchmarks in what democratic governments are doing to their own citizens,” says Joy Liddicoat from the Association for progressive communications – a global network of 50 non-profit ISPs and internet-for-development-organisations. “We are concerned that if the British government follows suit on these very serious and severe surveillance plans for the internet of tomorrow. It will have the effect of opening up the rationale for widespread surveillance in many other democratic countries,” she insists, on the line from her office in New Zealand. “New forms of mass surveillance violate human rights and undermine democracy and it is vital citizens understand and connect their online and offline human rights.”

The UK campaigning community 38 Degrees is currently running a massive campaign against the UK government snooping plans. On April 17, 135,625 people had already signed a petition to defeat those plans. More here: and here: Open Rights Group