Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reality, Can’t Keep Up With Part 39

At the beginning of this century I started work on a thriller set a little way in the future. A terrorist attack had damaged the country’s electronic infrastructure. The police and security services had gained all kinds of new powers. Surveillance was omnipresent. Titled Whole Wide World, it was published in the UK in September 2001.

One of my little flights of fancy was that the government would require all ISPs to keep long-term records of emails sent and websites visited by their customers. But it was a step beyond plausibility to imagine that the government would want to keep a central database of that data. No matter how it was ringfenced, sooner or later someone would hack it. Surely, no one would be so stupid, even in fiction.

Until now, that is. Despite serious problems with every large-scale government IT project, and a series of embarrassing security violations, including leaving laptops packed with sensitive data on trains and losing CD-ROMs of tax databases, the Home Office has the brass neck to suggest that it can be safely entrusted with logs of the telephone and internet usage of every one of its citizens. But wait: there’s more. Local government, the health service, and hundreds of public bodies will be able to access this data at will. And investigators across the European Community will be able to use it too.

There’s no doubt that this kind of data can be useful in investigations of terrorism and crime. But in the topsy-turvy world of the government , the only way to protect us from terrorism is to treat everybody as a potential terrorist. While in the real world, the bad guys can use disposable pay-as-you-go mobile phones, temporary, anonymous email addresses, forwarding services, and many other tricks to prevent anyone tracking what they’re up to. And pulling the internet records of a suicide bomber after the fact may not be much use to anyone.

You really can’t make it up. And to think that there are still people who believe that governments can maintain massive cover-ups about black-op conspiracies ...


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