The "snooper's charter" showed just what the Government is capable of

The proposed "Filter" programme would have been a vast step up in terms of the state's ability to spy on its citizens.

Surveillance technology is of two main types – equipment that keeps tabs on you in the physical world, and processes that track your activity “online” where computers keep a record of your communications and your financial activity.

The physical world is reasonably straightforward to understand. For instance, large numbers of CCTV cameras are installed in public and private spaces in the UK and recordings are kept of what they see. The cameras may be fixed, or a remote operator may be able to choose where they point and how much they zoom in. Newer systems can produce high quality material to enable precise identification of individuals and may also capture audio to accompany the pictures.

“Online” tracking can be equally revealing of people’s actions and movements. Mobile phones continuously interact with nearby cell towers so that incoming calls can be delivered. The phone companies are obliged to retain data about the location of a phone whenever a call is made or received, but if your phone is powered up then they have access to your location at all times and can provide this to law enforcement in real time if this is required.

The records that telephone companies (both fixed line and mobile) keep can be rapidly interrogated to provide lists of calls made from any particular phone, or to any particular phone. These lists will also include the duration of the call and the physical location of the endpoints. Call records can be identified either by the phone number or the phone's unique IMEI device identifier – permitting the tracing of phone activity even when the SIM has been changed.

When interaction is by email instead of by phone then the authorities can still get lists of who is communicating with whom. The email provider is obliged (if they are within the European Union) to keep records of who email was sent to or from, along with timestamp information and exactly how large each email was. Once again, law enforcement regularly requests lists of this email metadata, which can be indexed by sender or receiver.

So far, all of the surveillance and tracking systems have been considered in isolation. One of the provisions of the draft Communications Data Bill was the creation of a data correlation system dubbed a “Filter”. This system would combine enormous amounts of data from different systems, hoping to identify activity that would not have been apparent within a single system.

It is fundamentally inherent to this proposal that Filter data should be collected on everyone’s activity and that this data should be made available en masse from the private companies, the ISPs and telephone companies that provide services, to government systems for the correlation processing. The data won’t necessarily be physically combined on a single system (in fact it would be poor engineering to do this) but it will be logically combined. The original collectors of the data will not have any knowledge of what it is being used for, or possibly even how much data is being processed, so there will be no opportunity for whistle-blowing should excesses occur.

This integrated processing promises to make it much harder for criminals to communicate over a diversity of systems and thereby avoid being tracked – records of phone calls, emails and tweets could be easily combined. But the system’s capabilities go much further than that and the type of “big data” system envisaged will be capable of complex data mining tasks.

To take a fictional example from Charlie Brooker’s National Anthem, the source of a YouTube upload could be identified by the uniqueness of its size and timing; or, closer to real life, the source of an embarrassing leak could be identified by cross-correlating records to pick out exactly who in Whitehall sent out an email whose reception by a journalist triggered an immediate call to the relevant newspaper editor.

The trade-off for these new insights into criminal activity is that more information must be automatically collected about everyone (“just in case”), it must be stored for long periods, measured in years, and it must be handed over to the government operated filter for processing with the inherent assumption that the processing will be necessary, proportionate and authorised. There is tremendous scope for misusing such a system; a police state would relish the opportunity of correlating data on everyone out on the streets for a demonstration, everyone gathering in groups behind closed doors – or just collating a list of everyone who passed on an email containing a subversive joke. The complexity and secrecy of the proposed “Filter” system will make it extremely challenging to ensure that misuse, or just simple “mission creep”, does not occur.

This is an extract of a longer chapter on the technologies of surveillance in from Open Rights Group’s Digital Surveillance report which offers less intrusive alternatives to the Communications Data Bill, or "Snoopers’ Charter", which Nick Clegg blocked last week.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dr Richard Clayton is a security researcher at the University of Cambridge. He has acted as a specialist adviser for Select Committees of both the Lords and Commons in various inquiries into Internet security topics.

Flickr/Nic Gould
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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.