Facebook for snoopers

The government is waging war against citizens with its data policies

Can you "persuade others of the benefits of proposals or the value of a particular interpretation"? Then perhaps the recently advertised position of senior information officer at the Home Office's new Intercept Modernisation Programme (IMP) is for you.

According to the description of the £45,000-a-year job (removed from the Home Office website, but, at the time of going to press, still available in Google's cache), the IMP has been set up to "maintain the UK's capability to obtain and exploit Lawful Intercept (LI) product and Communications Data (CD)", using "a range of new technologies". You and I will know IMP better as the nutty plans that have been making headlines all summer, plans to log details about every web page we visit, every SMS message we text and every email we send. And not only that, but to store all this "communications traffic" information in a central database.

Can you "spot the publicity or news value of policy or operational developments"? Perhaps then, as the successful candidate for the job, you'll do the clever thing and throw a sickie the day the contents of the Communications Data Bill, said to contain full details of the IMP, are revealed during the next session of parliament. Because surely even a government this data-crazy doesn't think it can get such a scheme past the public, and least of all now? Surely we agree with the Information Commissioner that any such plans would go "a step too far for the British way of life"?

A centrally stored record of all the communications traffic data generated by UK citizens would be vast. It would also dramatically reduce the cost of mass surveillance, and allow the security services and other law enforcers to trace friendship trees, networks of people who call, text or email each other, and thereby to hunt for potential conspirators as yet unknown to the authorities, subjecting them in turn to more intrusive surveillance techniques. Think of it as Facebook on steroids, maintained for you by the helpful men at MI5 - and, if the government's record on interception is anything to go by, accessed less often by valiant security services saving us from the next 7 July-type attack than by council snoopers wanting to know the address of the guy they caught on CCTV letting his dog foul the pavement while he chatted away on his mobile.

Public appetite for this emetic scheme is resolutely absent. Does any politician freshly bruised from the 42-day terror law, least of all one in as much trouble as Gordon Brown, want to spend the next parliamentary term defending it? That would only serve to drown out the message of Labour as the driver of positive social change that senior party figures are so desperate to communicate. More than ever, our politicians must make sure they are fighting for the welfare of UK citizens, not waging a cold war against them.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran