Thought for the day:RIP our freedoms

Hard-hitting IT commentator Dr Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Two years ago I gave a speech at...

Hard-hitting IT commentator Dr Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.Two years ago I gave a speech at "The Internet & Power" conference at Cambridge, where I warned that the threat of a new Act of Parliament, "The Regulation of Investigatory Powers", would put paid to any illusion of freedom we may have.

In a grand rhetorical gesture, I asked: "What began with Magna Carta, ends with RIP?" and the Act was highly controversial when it was first presented to Parliament, resulting in defeats for the Government in the Lords and significant changes being made to prevent its complete rejection.

Now, I don't care much for political rants and the opinions of left or even right-wing loonies. I much prefer common sense and, in most cases, believe that mixing government and technology is a recipe for the worst kinds of embarrassment and disaster.

But RIP is a special case, because what many of us feared most seems to be about to happen, as the Act is amended to increase the number of official bodies that can access personal details of phone calls and e-mails.

Originally the powers were only available to the police, customs, Inland Revenue, and the security services, but FIPR (The Foundation for information Policy Research) is now warning that amendments will extend this power to other government departments, local authorities, the NHS and, apparently even as far as your postman, through what will now be known once more as the Post Office.

According to The FIPR, "The powers contained in RIP Part I Chapter II allow notices to be served on telephone companies, Internet service providers (ISPs) or postal operators to obtain information such as the name and address of users, phone numbers called, source and destination of emails, the identity of Web sites visited or mobile phone location data accurate to a hundred metres or less"
Ian Brown, the director of FIPR, has remarked that the difficulty that the Government has encountered in getting the right processes in place for the police should make us ultra-cautious in extending these powers to such a wide range of bodies, with little enough resources put into the oversight arrangements for the existing proposals. In practice, these bodies are going to obtain this personal data on anyone they wish, without any effective way of checking what they're doing.

I would like to believe that after11 September, RIP will be exercised sensibly and with appropriate restraint, but then I would like to believe the same thing about my local council's unrestricted use of traffic wardens, who might, to play the complete cynic, also qualify as "authorised officials".

I do wonder sometimes whether there's a new "Reformation" at work in this country of ours with the Internet and not the Bible as the blunt instrument of social change.

We might have David Starkey's Life of Henry VIII to entertain us in the evenings, but sadly, in our apathetic and hurried digital age, we have no modern equivalent of Sir Thomas More, a powerful enough figure prepared to defend the remains of our freedoms on a matter of principle.

Is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers an Act too far? >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence: Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and ramblings of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computing Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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