The passing of the Investigatory Powers Bill in Parliament this week marked a new low point for a government that appears to care little about the consequences of its ill-considered legislation, and shows once more - if anyone was in any doubt - that politicians display an almost total lack of understanding of modern technology that is both scandalous and dangerous in the modern world.
For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, the Investigatory Powers Bill - otherwise known as the Snoopers' Charter - was passed by a vote in the House of Commons following its second reading, with Labour and the SNP abstaining rather than be seen to vote against it.
The new legislation effectively supersedes the earlier Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), and allows the government to retain Internet Connection Records (ICRs) about every website visited by every web user in the UK for a period of 12 months, as well as details of other telecommunications activity such as phone calls.
It has come under almost universal condemnation from every side, from privacy campaigners to Human Rights activists to business and technology companies, and even a group of 200 senior lawyers in the UK who signed an open letter to the government stating that the new legislation is fundamentally flawed, does not provide adequate protection for privacy, and may even be illegal under international law.
But all of this opposition proved fruitless, as the ruling party proceeded to rush the legislation through Parliament without allowing enough time for MPs to properly scrutinise and debate the Bill. A cynic might say that the government was afraid that the Bill would not stand up to much scrutiny.
And yet, there are serious doubts over whether the Investigatory Powers Bill is at all fit for purpose. As many independent authorities have already pointed out, there is no clear evidence that mass collection of internet data in this way will prevent acts of terrorism, which is purportedly the reason for the Bill in the first place.
In fact, amassing a giant list of every website accessed by every member of the public may well lead to the security services being buried under an avalanche of data that makes it impossible to sort the wheat from the chaff. Imagine a handful of ears of corn distributed in a mound of chaff the size of Mount Everest, and you get the picture.
Then there is the cost to consider. The government is forcing communications service providers to shoulder the burden of collecting and retaining the Internet Connection Records generated by their customers, which means they will be hit with the cost of storing massive amounts of highly sensitive data.
Storage may be cheap these days, but just think about the number of websites you visit in just one single day, then multiply this by 365 days in a year, then multiply that by the population of the UK, and you can see that we are talking about quite serious volumes of data.
This means that the internet service providers such as BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and the rest are almost certainly going to have to hike broadband prices in order to cover the costs of storing and managing all this data that the government is forcing them to collect, and could have an impact on investment in the infrastructure needed to deliver better broadband in future.
Worse, the Bill apparently contains few measures to limit which agencies or bodies can have access to the data gathered and for what purposes. We have already seen widespread abuses of the previous RIPA act by local authorities using those powers to gather information on people committing parking offences or check whether families are genuinely within the catchment area of a particular school.
And many internet firms have already fallen victim to cyber attacks that have led to the exposure of sensitive personal information regarding users. A mass of data listing every website visited by every individual subscriber to an internet service will surely represent a tempting target for criminals, and the consequences of some of this data being published for all to see don't bear thinking about.
Furthermore, some industry experts have warned that Investigatory Powers Bill could have a chilling effect on UK technology startups. One lecturer at the London School of Economics blogged that some startups such as social media company Ind.ie are already packing up and leaving the UK because of fears that they may be forced to build backdoors into their products for the security services to access.
But possibly the worst part of the Investigatory Powers Bill is that the snooping will be relatively easy to circumvent for anyone tech-savvy enough to realise that using a virtual private network (VPN) or the Tor network will effectively hide which websites they are looking at. All that the Internet Connection Records would show in this case is traffic between your location and the VPN provider.
Of course, the UK government may next take the step of making use of VPNs illegal, but to do so would at a stroke make it impossible to secure any business communications traffic, including financial transactions. But who knows what might happen when you have a government whose decisions seem to be increasingly driven by dogma rather than by data.
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