When I was in high school, everyone was required to read the book entitled 1984 by George Orwell.  According to Amazon’s description of the book, “In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind.”  I recall there being much discussion of how horrible that would be and how it would never happen.

Yesterday I read an article on BBC.com that states, “The government will be able to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK under new legislation set to be announced soon.”  That sounds to me like 1984 may have arrived.  Of course, those proposing the new law state that it is critical to have access to information about terrorists and their contacts in order to protect the country.  The difference between this proposal and one that failed a few years earlier is that police will not be able to access the data without a warrant.  But, the article goes on to say that the law would “enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.”

Most law-abiding citizens have no difficulty with the concept that terrorists or criminals would have their information recorded.  However, the law does not limit data collection to known criminals or terrorists, or even those under suspicion — it opens the door to collecting this information about everyone.  Once collected, will the government be able to help itself in doing more with the data than intended?  What is the difference then between the British government and that in China or Iran in modern times, or Nazi Germany and Communist Russia in more distant times?  Will the government not face the risk of taking action because of some communications that when put together look alarming?  How long will it take for the government to try to mine the data to find other “terrorists” or “criminals” who are so identified simply because they have similar surfing or communications patterns?

In addition, how will all of these data be protected from hackers?  We have recently seen hackers breech the security of Scotland Yard meetings, military data, corporate data, and, of course, credit cards.  In that same article, the author notes, “The Sunday Times quoted an industry official who warned it would be “expensive, intrusive [and] a nightmare to run legally.”  Most professionals respond to that quote as “to say the least!”

Police have always wanted this kind of information, but society has said that individual freedom is more important.  Just because it is (relatively) easy to get and keep such data now that it is electronic, does that make it right?   It is almost impossible to get privacy back once it is lost … shouldn’t we ponder this a bit more before we risk the loss of privacy forever?

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