The Stack Archive

Harry Potter and the Data Retention Law

Wed 16 Jul 2014


Good news everyone. If you ever forget your login for Netflix, or can’t remember whether you called your great aunt in Bournemouth last Sunday, no longer will you need to make a long distance call to the NSA to get the details. GCHQ appears to have also nailed the ‘we know exactly how hilarious your cat and children aren’t’ hack.

Fortunately given the gravity of this situation, a connected scenario relating to the storage of personal data is being taken very seriously. Because of the importance placed on this situation, the UK government would absolutely not attempt to pass an emergency law about data retention by giving elected MPs very little notice that this was about to take place, and not providing them the legislation to read through. Would they?

Actually yes they would. And they have. And whilst this situation is almost comical in its ‘Yes Minister-esque’ incompetence it’s also a bit of a concern.

There are two very important reasons why this bill has concerned me:

1. Any infringement of an individual’s privacy from the state deserves more debate
2. I’ve had to read loads of ‘news’ articles where the writer insists on invoking the spirit of 1984 and ‘Big Brother’ in what I can only assume is a staggering lack of imagination

Before I go further with this I’m going to quickly revisit exactly what this legislation actually says. In effect it makes ISPs and phone operators, store communications data for 12 months. The data that is collected is metadata, they know who you emailed/phoned/text and they know when. This isn’t new; in fact this practice has been in place since 2006 when the Data Retention Directive was passed, requiring ISPs to store data for between 6 and 24 months. This law is just a work around to ensure that these practices can continue unabated.

At this stage it is also worth noting that there are some very good reasons why this law should be in place. For example:

Policeman: ‘Where were you between the hours of 9pm and 10pm last Friday?’

Bank robber: ‘I was at home reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to my three year old daughter’

Policeman: ‘Ignoring the fact that that is potentially the weakest book in the Harry Potter series and also is too dark for a three year old, your phone records show you spent 45 minutes on the phone to ‘Dave ‘Bank Burglar’ Smith.’

It is worth noting that had the police been aware something dodgy was going on in advance then they would have been able to order a wiretap on his phone. But this would have required a warrant. I’ve watched all five seasons of The Wire and that was some fine police work. As such I think most people would support the use, and storage, of metadata for these purposes.

Where this starts to get slightly dodgy is when you consider what GCHQ and the intelligence services can do. And whilst we are all vaguely aware of what is technically possible (they could know pretty much everything we have ever put on social media or in an email or text message) we don’t know what they are actually up to. Not knowing what they are up to, is sort of the point of having a secret service though, so again I think most people would accept that there are things they won’t ever find out about.

This brings me back to the original point of this. The law itself isn’t necessarily the problem. Smart people from law enforcement and the intelligence services, who have dedicated their lives to protecting the public, have all agreed that this law is necessary. The problem is the complete disregard for democratic process that has been shown by politicians.

The debate over data privacy is not going to be over for a long time. People have understandable concerns over this and a stop gap, emergency law, was not the answer. There was an opportunity for intelligent debate that could have not only informed the public, but shown that this is an issue that the UK government takes seriously.

This opportunity was lost but it will come again. I hope that next time; a more informed debate will be had.


N.B. By putting Harry Potter in the title you may feel misled about what this was actually going to be about. Whilst I feel bad about misleading you, please remember I did this for the greater good


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