British officials pushing for power to do basic monitoring of all U.K. electronic conversations

The Takeaway

The British government is moving forward with a proposal to allow its intelligence agency, GCHQ, to monitor calls, emails, texts and online searches of everyone inside the U.K.’s borders — without needing a warrant

The conservative government argues that it needs these powers to fight terrorism and keep the nation safe. They say the monitoring would extend only to information like to whom the messages are being sent, and by whom. Labour party opponents and civil rights advocates are crying foul — though the Labour Party advocated for a similar law when it held power previously.

The surveillance would be made possible by requiring telecommunications companies to install sophisticated monitoring devices on their U.K.-based servers — monitoring devices more often associated with repressive dictators in the developing world, and not with western-style democracies.

Robert Schifreen, an IT consultant in England, argues that the GCHQ has been monitoring citizen’s activities for quite some time, but passing the proposed law would make intercepted information admissible in court.

“The trouble’s always been that intercept evidence has never been admissible in court,” he explained. “The intelligence agencies don’t want to say what they do and don’t monitor, because that would give the game away. So, I suspect, that what’s this bill is aimed at doing is not so much allowing agencies to do anything, but is legitimizing it so the evidence can be used in court cases and also to investigate further.”

Schifreen said, unlike in the United States, electronic intercepts are basically inadmissible in U.K. courts. In the United States, an elaborate system of top secret intelligence courts have been set up to grant permission for national security wiretaps that can ultimately be used in court, if need-be. But the U.S. has also had its own controversies over warrant-less wiretapping.

“Some parts of the intelligence agencies do what to make it admissible, some don’t. If you start to make it admissible, if you start to do more of this monitoring, the criminals will know which systems are monitored and which ones aren’t,” Schifreen said. “If it turns out in court, and if it becomes documented that SMS text messages are harder to intercept than emails, than the criminals and the pornographers and the terrorists and anyone who simply doesn’t want to be found will use that system rather than the other one.”

It’s a big privacy issue for people in the U.K. who don’t want to see their web browsing histories monitored, Schifreen said.

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