Interview with UK cyber-crime minister

The most recent Guardian Online has an interview with Paul Goggins, the British Home Office minister concerned with internet crime, about recent Government proposals to police internet use by requiring service providers to keep records of which sites their customers visit for up to three years. The justification being, as ever, terrorism, and the slogans come thick and fast, so beware!

Over tea in Brighton’s Grand Hotel, he explains that the threat of terrorism is a crucial justification for the proposals. It is an apt venue: in a bomb attack on this hotel 21 years ago, the IRA killed five people.

The source of the threat has changed, but after July’s bomb attacks in London, the terrorist threat seems stronger than ever. Following the London bombings, the UK proposed that European telecoms and internet service providers should be forced to keep logs of customer activity for up to three years - much longer than is currently the case. “Charles [Clarke] wants to get a more uniform, coherent approach across Europe,” says Goggins. “Terrorist activity doesn’t just happen overnight, or in a space of weeks. It’s often planned over a long, long period of time, and that’s why we are laying emphasis on the need to extend the period.”

Well, as I recall, the notion of there being a terrorist threat is something that has been known of for a long time, since before 9/11, and I thought that the police were continually foiling terrorist plots by rounding up men across the country (and often quietly releasing them without charge). The July bombings were no wake-up call. They were something people always knew could happen, and given the various lurid plots people came up with for what might happen (like trucks releasing clouds of chlorine, for example), they were pretty run-of-the-mill as terrorist attacks go.

And Goggins is ready to answer any objection with a guilt-trip cliché:

“The costs have been exaggerated,” argues Goggins, adding that the costs of a terrorist bombing are very high.

“Freedom of speech is important. It’s enshrined in our culture and is something we guard fiercely. But the right to life is the most fundamental human right. What we need to do is balance other rights and freedoms against that central freedom.”

There we go again. The biggest civil right of all is security, as another politician was heard to say earlier this year. I’m not sure whether the web is growing at the astronomical rate it has been over the past twelve years or so when it was expanding from academia into commerce and the home, but nobody really knows how much gear, how much storage, will be necessary to record every transaction and keep the data for three years. The likelihood is of at least one mass data transfer job by a company who underestimated their own growth, possibly involving a big loss of data (not that this would be anything to mourn). How big could all this get? Perhaps we could see whole rooms full of server racks containing nothing but data for the use of government snoopers.

And on the subject of security, what about personal security from malicious state officials? Civil rights and freedoms used to be based on the notion of restraint of power, not extending it because we’re afraid of a terrorist attack that might not happen. There is a piece in today’s Observer by Carol Sarler (Unleashing the little Hitlers) about anti-terrorist laws and ID cards being “an excuse for bullying”, pointing out that such rules are commonly used by petty officials as a means of exercising power over people for its own sake. In older times such activity was linked to race, and legislation passed in the 1980s was intended to reduce malicious pseudo-policing activity. Perhaps we are too used to our freedoms in this country; it’s a long time since we faced a genuine threat to them.

And terrorism just isn’t it, even if it justifies the hysteria it’s caused. You might ask why terrorist activity in this country has borne no fruit except two sets of common package bombs. I would have thought that if any serious violent Muslim underground existed here, it would have attacked Jewish targets after flare-ups in the Palestinian situation, not necessarily using conventional terrorist tactics but perhaps more along the lines of the animal rights groups’ methods. And to think that people claim this is worse than the IRA, who used car and truck bombs which devastated large buildings and damaged whole streets, who had the support of a substantial minority of the northern Irish population with real grievances. Four years after 9/11, the terrorists haven’t proved effective enough to justify vast increases in security and snooping provisions.

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