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Columnists

Surfers' paradise

Dixe Wills

dixe.jpg'The price of freedom,' as wise-cracking former US president Thomas Jefferson quipped, 'is eternal vigilance.' Actually, he may not have done, or if he did so he was almost certainly quoting the Irish politician, wit and multiple duellist John Philpot Curran, who definitely said it. The point remains the same, however.

It's a line that could easily have been trotted out by one of the proponents of the government's Draft Communications Data Bill (which the Surfer's Paradise fan will recall I mentioned a few months ago and which has progressed to committee stage). After all, the stated intention of the bill is to give the police, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, HM Revenue and Customs and the intelligence agencies greater powers to crack down on those who would jeopardise our freedom - viz. terrorists, criminals and their scurrilous fellow travellers.

To this end, details of emails, calls and messages on social media sites (including that joke you posted about the prime minister's knees that was so good I passed it off as my own) will have to be stored by internet service providers and the Big Six telecoms companies for 12 months. Any member of the aforementioned crime-busting/terrorist-thwarting/fellow-traveller-impeding state bodies will be able to find out the sender, recipient, time and duration of any communication without recourse to a pesky judge. All they have to do is say that the information is required for a criminal investigation or on a matter of national security. They'll only need a warrant if they want access to the content of any messages. Even non-crime-busting/non-terrorist-thwarting/etc. local authorities would be able to request some of the data held.

Unfortunately, as we saw with the last government's Terrorism Act, such legislation tends to be so vaguely worded that the police and courts can interpret them as they please. This is precisely how a pair of asylum seekers came to be arrested and held for two days for filming each other in a park, and why a friend of mine is now officially a 'domestic extremist' (and banned from the US) for having taken part in a song-and-dance video on a public footpath in a corner of an obscure English airport.

What's more, the chances of the law foiling any future terrorist plots or major heists are negligible. As Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has pointed out, all the budding international terrorist/reprobate has to do is use a non-Big Six telecoms company, leaving the legislation to catch 'the incompetent criminal and the accidental anarchist'. Oh, and Skype messages are encrypted, making them extremely difficult to interpret.

So, sorry to bang on but this has been largely sliding under the radar thus far and it's the sort of law that gives police states a bad name. As it says in the book of Orwell (which is canonical in some of the more enlightened parts of the Church), 'If you've nothing to hide, they shouldn't be able to prove it.'.

Dixe Wills