Jane Wakefield: I spy with my little eye

These days everybody's playing a spying game...
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The game we used to play in the back of the car during long journeys went global this week as it becomes apparent that everyone is busy watching everyone else.

First off there was a small case of multinational espionage as Oracle proves that paranoia is alive and kicking in the software industry. The thought of a detective in a trilby and trenchcoat following Bill Gates around with a copy of the Seattle Times raised over his face is an image so delicious that I find it hard to get cross with Oracle for having a go.

In fact the only thing about it that makes me cross is that the detective did not manage to dig the dirt on the software giant. Surely there was some assignation with a senator or late night visit to a massage parlour that could be turned into evidence that Microsoft is indeed an evil empire. It seems so unlikely that there was nothing to uncover that I get the feeling Oracle might just have hired the wrong detective.

In the 1970s we were treated to a succession of cop shows in which all the detectives had some special trait -- the crippled detective (Ironside), the detective who lived in a trailer (Rockford) the bald detective (Kojak) and now it would seem Oracle have found the perfect candidate for a nineties update -- the crap detective.

In a whole year the detective agency hired by Oracle failed to find one single piece of salacious evidence against Microsoft. That is truly worrying.

Oracle is not the only one finding itself in deep water for alleged spying this week as the government realises its Internet surveillance bill is deeply unpalatable to everyone who doesn't sit on the front bench.

The Lords are an unlikely defender of civil liberties but if there is an excuse for slagging off a government that is trying to drive them out of power for good they will jump on any bandwagon. And the RIP bandwagon is an ideal one to jump on. It is silly, unworkable legislation which also -- unfortunately for the Labour administration -- goes smack bang in the face of the Human Rights Act which the government is duty bound to introduce to parliament at about the same time.

The government is only just getting used to defeat as its honeymoon period with the British public begins to come to an end. As dedicated followers of all things e-commerce and Internet, it is quite ironic that its first defeat should be on cyber law and in an effort to rescue the drowning RIP bill it has rushed back to the drawing board and written a few amendments. It has always insisted that the clause in RIP forcing defendants to prove they had innocently lost keys rather than maliciously destroyed them did not reverse the burden of proof. But in the amended bill the burden shifts subtly to the prosecution in an attempt to silence the ever-growing chorus of civil rights disapproval.

As its mantra in recent weeks has become "making Britain the best place to do e-commerce" it could also not afford to piss off businesses. So after attacks from the Institute of Directors and the British Chamber of Commerce the government has attempted to make the bill more palatable to UK firms. Whether it will be enough to save the bill will become clear in the next week or so as the Lords deliver their final verdict on the legislation.

Perhaps the funniest thing to emerge from the whole RIP debacle was e-envoy Alex Allan's attempts to defend it in a speech made on a tour of the US this week. He couldn't even get the name right, referring to it as the Regulation of Investigatory Practices (instead of Powers) bill. And the best thing was that he was on a fact-finding mission. When he gets back to his desk he may just find the following memo in his inbox: in future before embarking on foreign fact-finding missions get the homegrown ones right.

ZDNet News has been doing its bit for international spying this week, going for a full-blown expose of Echelon -- the US/UK satellite surveillance system. Having read the stories and seen the pictures of the X-Files style satellite dishes used by the National Security Agency it makes me wonder why the UK government needs RIP at all. Surely there is no piece of technology that the spooks can't penetrate already. And it seems governments do not need the tiresome process of democratic legislation for any of it.

In fact it is becoming increasingly obvious that technology is the spies best friend. Forget Mata Hari influenced seduction or poisoned umbrellas. With more and more people communicating electronically it is much easier to turn the bugs on the Net. Employers spying on employees, nation spying on nation, corporation spying on corporation, multinational spying for government. Even I am not safe, finding myself today the victim of a secret Web cam homed in on my desk.

US comedian Steve Wright once made the following joke: "Last night I fell asleep in a satellite dish and my dreams were broadcast all over the world".

As technology becomes increasingly sophisticated it doesn't seem quite so funny after all.

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