HOME SECRETARIES–who are responsible for law, order and the police, among other things–tend not to have reputations as hand-wringing liberals. So it was odd to hear Jacqui Smith, the incumbent, talk piously of the need to balance security concerns with worries about privacy as she announced, on April 27th, the latest iteration of government plans to monitor people’s use of the internet.
On the face of it, Ms Smith was executing a climb-down. Internet and phone companies are already required to store some “traffic data” (that is, details of who was talking to whom and when, but not what was said). But spooks and the police had been lobbying for records to be kept of text messages and postings on social-networking sites too, as well as visits to foreign websites, and for the information to be stored on a government database. Ministers had seemed minded to agree, but in the end the home secretary pronounced the proposal too much. So phone and internet firms will keep storing data themselves, but they will be required to save more information than before.
To critics, there seems little difference between a database run by the government and one run by the private sector to which the state has access. Isabella Sankey of Liberty, a civil-liberties pressure group, points out that the government will have to approve each application to see the privately held data, which might not have been necessary had a government database been built. That should make it harder to conduct the sort of “fishing expeditions”–trawling the data in the hopes of stumbling across wrongdoing–on which the security services were previously keen.
But Ms Sankey worries that access will be granted too readily (last year 520,000 sets of details were handed over, mainly to the police and spooks). Phil Booth of No2ID, which campaigns against surveillance databases, points out that although data on individuals will usually be held by different firms, the new plan requires them to join forces, in some as yet unspecified way, to build a complete picture of every Briton’s electronic existence.
Two things may explain Ms Smith’s change of direction. One is money. Paying the private sector to run its own databases (at an estimated cost of £2 billion over ten years) will almost certainly cost the government less than building its own. With the public finances in a mess, high-tech security schemes are in the crosshairs. The Tories have reiterated promises to ditch the £5 billion plan for a national identity card. David Blunkett, the former home secretary who launched the identity-card scheme, now thinks it should be scrapped. Several cabinet ministers are rumoured to agree.
The public mood may be shifting too, with growing worries about civil liberties and the misuse of surveillance powers. The government suffered a humiliating reverse last year over proposals to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 42 days. And it has been embarrassed by local authorities using snooping powers intended to curb serious crime to spy on malefactors suspected of gaming the schools-admissions system or leaving their rubbish bins out overnight. Having the private sector, rather than the state, monitor the internet may make little practical difference. But Ms Smith must be glad to have vaguely favourable headlines, for once.