Surveillance: Privacy versus policework - the debate

The police say access to email and Net traffic is necessary in the fight against crime. Civil libertarians say, leave the Internet alone.

The police say access to email and Net traffic is necessary in the fight against crime. Civil libertarians say, leave the Internet alone. What is the real nature of surveillance on the Net and what are the implications for personal freedom?

In one corner is Keith Akerman, head of CID in Hampshire and chair of ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) computer crime working group.

In the other, Nicholas Bohm, lawyer and e-commerce adviser to civil liberties group Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties.

The law enforcer and the civil libertarian fight it out as ZDNet plays referee in the privacy versus police debate.

There are no statistics on the number of criminals caught using surveillance, but Home Secretary Jack Straw claims that one in every two interception warrants he issues results in an arrest.

Bohm says Straw is misinformed. "The statistics the police produce to justify interception are bogus and inadequate," says Bohm. "They claim that on average one in two interception warrants result in an arrest. This is ridiculous as most successful arrests are of groups of people so the figure is more like one in ten."

Surprisingly Akerman agrees. "The powers of surveillance the police wants will impact a very few number of crimes," he says.

Which will not be music to the ears of the ISPs who may be forced by the government to pay for surveillance equipment. Demon Internet reckons it will have to spend £1m a year to meet the government's requirements on surveillance. Asked if that was a reasonable sum to expect an ISP to fork out to "impact a very few number of crimes", Akerman says, "I don't know what Demon's figures relate to. Law enforcement requires the ability to intercept and it is debatable if the numbers of crimes or cost is relevant. It is the principle of providing lawful means of getting there that is important."

On that principle, Akerman believes the police has the backing of public opinion. "Surveillance is necessary on the Internet. There is a fairly obvious public demand for the police service to enforce law in a way they are happy with," he says.

But Bohm is not so sure the public is behind Akerman on this. As a citizen Bohm is not at all happy with being snooped on. "It is a real concern to me. As a practising solicitor I use email and am not sympathetic to the thought that the government wants to check up on what my clients are saying to me," he says.

Under IOCA proposals, law enforcers will have access to one in every 500 Internet calls. Although the proposals are in the public domain, they are news to Akerman. "There is no intention to have interception on the extent you say. I'm amazed there is," he says.

For more information on IOCA see "How encryption works".

Bohm is convinced Akerman's concerns about crime fighting are genuine but argues that his apparent alarm at official proposals is representative of how little the police have thought the argument through. "The police have a long way to go. They are not out to infringe peoples' liberty but they don't realise the impact of what they are calling for," he says.

Bohm interprets Akerman's alarm as evidence of an agenda the government would rather keep hidden. "You have got to look across government activity as a whole to get an adequate picture," he says. "I'm not surprised Keith Akerman is amazed by this figure as it has nothing to do with police needs, but is driven by the intelligence service." Bohm believes the intelligence service is pushing the surveillance agenda. "GCHQ has strong connections with the US, and the government will be keen to do whatever the US wants. Pleasing the Americans is a high priority," he says.

Keith Akerman disagrees, arguing that fighting crime is the only driving force behind the snoop plans. "Law enforcers have to have the ability to investigate crime," he says. "To undermine our ability to do that will have awful consequences. If you buy something for £50 on the Internet and don't get the goods, you would want the police to investigate. If we cannot gather the evidence to support your allegations, your offence is not going to be prosecuted."

Seeking to reassure, Akerman believes we, the public, have nothing to fear. "I honestly think the average law-abiding citizen has nothing to worry about," he says.

But Bohm is not happy that his email can be read by hidden eyes. In the end, Bohm reckons it is about being in control of the information a person generates. "I want to be back in control. It is unacceptable to have covert, undiscoverable, unacknowledged intrusion authorised by government. Even in a democratic country like the UK it leaves me uncomfortable. Police control is not enough to stop abuses. Imagine the power of surveillance in countries like Kosovo, Burma or East Timor. It is not a happy picture," he says.

Experts from the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and GCHQ last week declined to take part in this debate.

See also: "How encryption works".

Take me to Surveillance.

"Surveillance is necessary on the Internet" -- Keith Akerman. Is he right? Tell the Mailroom