Inside Story
The UK 'snooping' plan: Security vs. privacy
Is the UK's new online surveillance plan an essential security tool or an unnecessary breach of personal freedoms?
Last Modified: 04 Apr 2012 11:22

The UK's Home Office plans to implement a new surveillance network to monitor web and email activity nationwide. It is a plan that, if implemented, will track any message sent to anyone at any time.

"Any terrorist who is seriously trying to do harm to people, they are going to be taking all sorts of counter-measures to hide their tracks and this sort of law is really not going to get you anywhere."

Danvers Baillieu, a specialist in internet law

The so-called 'snoopers charter' would force internet service providers to keep records of all emails, messages on social networking sites and conversations via Skype.

Internet companies will have to install hardware to allow the government access to online communications.

A court order will be required to listen to or read those communications, but the police and security services will not need one to demand information regarding who the communication is between and when it took place.

Plans for a massive government database of the country's phone and email traffic were abandoned in 2008 following a public outcry.

"We have censorship in many other areas in the UK .... And suddenly when we're talking about this electronic world called the internet we have this terrible reaction to the thought that the government might somehow interfere with control or manage what people are doing on it. And I'm not sure that's a legitimate concern."

Bob Ayers, an international security analyst

But James Blessing of the Internet Service Providers' Association said the government appears to be "reintroducing it on a slightly different format".

It is a move British politicians say is needed to prevent terrorism and catch criminals. But opponents of the proposed plan have raised privacy concerns and some have compared the UK plan to the policies of tightly controlled states like China and Iran.

So is it an essential security tool or an unnecessary breach of personal freedoms? And will it set a precedent for other countries?

Inside Story, with presenter Hazem Sika, discusses with: Bob Ayers, an international security analyst and former intelligence officer; Danvers Baillieu, a senior associate at Pinsent Masons and a specialist in internet law; and Adrian Mars, a technology journalist and internet analyst.

"It is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people .... Historically governments have been kept out of our private lives. Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts by saying: 'If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine, if it is a terrorist or a criminal go and ask a magistrate and you'll get your approval." You shouldn't go beyond that in a decent, civilised society."

David Davis, a former conservative shadow home secretary


  • The UK government is considering a plan to monitor people's calls, emails and web usage
  • Security agencies would have the power to identify people's contacts
  • Powers would allow the monitoring of communications in 'real time'
  • The government says it wants to see who is talking to whom, not to screen content
  • Home secretary Theresa May insists that the proposed legal changes will not target ordinary people
  • Ministers argue that powers are needed to combat serious crime and terrorism
  • Rights campaigners say that the plan is an unprecedented attack on privacy
  • Opponents also point to the huge costs of implementing these powers
  • The proposed move would require the installation of tens of thousands of specialised pieces of hardware to monitor the country's internet traffic
  • The home office minister denies government plans to create a 'super database'
  • The government faced fierce opposition in 2008 for proposing a similar plan 
  • Critics say governments like China's may use the new UK law to justify their own tight internet censorship
  • In China, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are banned and the internet is monitored
  • David Cameron, the British prime minister, said it "is not about extending the reach of the state into people's data, it's about trying to keep up with modern technology"
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