The UK press reports that the British government is considering outsourcing the administration of a communications database that would contain enormous amounts of personal data on UK citizens to a private company. In May, the UK government floated a plan to create a massive database with the details of every phone call made and every e-mail sent in the UK. The Home Office (equivalent to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security) also sought records for all Internet use in the UK. There was much controversy; legislators and the public came out against this massive invasion of privacy.
While there are important reasons for concern about having this database run by a private company rather than public employees, debate about outsourcing obscures the real problem — that this database is being considered at all.
Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, highlighted an important problem. “Authorisations for access might be written into statute. The most senior ministers and officials might be designated as scrutineers. But none of this means anything,” said Macdonald. “All history tells us that reassurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis the locks would loosen.”
When the plan was discussed in May, I explained my vehement opposition. “Unless the public is vigilant, I believe that we will fast approach a society where ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is turned on its head. In order to prove their innocence, citizens will have to submit to being treated as criminals.”
Nothing has occurred to change my mind. There is no justification for creating a massive national database of all UK citizens’ phone calls, e-mails, or Internet use.