(Note: all views expressed are SOLELY those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Mobileshop.com)
Mobile phones have always been a particular target of the tin-foil-hatted brigade, as Technical Markus would call them, the ones who believe mobile phone masts control our thoughts using microwaves. The problem with focusing on downright strange theories like that, however, is that you miss the very real privacy issue we now face.
As reported by The Times Online, the government have announced that they plan to implement a law so that you have to present a passport or other official ID, in order to buy even a pay as you go mobile phone, the reason being that, according to Whitehall, pay as you go mobile phones are what ‘terrorists’ use to plan their attacks on us.
Before we get to the real meat of the subject, let’s first take a step back, and see what happens now in when you want to buy mobile phones, since, as some people have said, you have to provide those details now when you buy a contract phone. Well, yes, that’s true, but as things stand at the moment, you provide those details for one purpose: to prove you are who you say you are, as an anti-fraud measure. It’s pretty standard policy, and it’s also used in the credit check.
What’s being proposed here, though, is far bigger and far more insidious than that. Yes, the passport will be used to confirm who you are. However, after buying the mobile phone, your details will be entered in the massive central database being pushed in the Communications Data Bill, essentially putting you on a register of mobile phone owners.
If there’s a better phrase than that to make innocent people feel like criminals, I’ve yet to see it…
Needless to say, the quoted reason for this is because ‘terrorists’ (a catch-all term, nowadays, that can be applied as a reason for monitoring anything) buy pay as you go mobile phones with cash, don’t give an ID, plan some atrocity, and then throw the phone away, thus getting away free.
And there we hit the central problem with this new proposal. The proposal is simple: by law, everyone has to provide their ID, and go on a register, when they buy a mobile phone, and therefore, no ‘terrorists’ or criminals can lawfully buy a mobile phone in the UK. So, having a phone without showing your ID card and papers will be against the law.
The snag with this plan should be glaringly obvious to just about anyone:
Criminals don’t obey the law. That’s basically the job description.
So, what we’re faced with is a proposal that not only won’t stop ‘terrorists’ and master-villains (which is seemingly what people like Jacqui Smith and Geoff Hoon think Britain is filled with) from obtaining mobile phones, but will make innocent people feel criminalised for wanting to buy one. I can’t help but think such a system has things slightly backwards, there, and I rather strongly suspect people will wonder why only naughty people can easily get mobile phones.
That, of course, leads on to the next snag, and one that can’t have escaped people’s notice: what do people want to do if they want to buy mobile phones, but don’t have a passport? Say your gran wants a mobile phone for emergencies, and just wants a pay as you go phone, rather than spending her entire pension on a contract she will never use? Ah, but she doesn’t have a passport, or driving licence. Sorry, gran, the government says you can’t have a mobile phone, presumably since you’re a potential ‘terrorist’ threat.
Does this idea seem absurd to anyone else?
Now, people may argue that I’m being paranoid, but I’m going to suggest that once we’re all on this register, then we can forget any old-fashioned notions of privacy. Whitehall will have instant access to everyone’s phone number, and tracking technology can pinpoint mobile phones to within a few hundred feet, nowadays. So, they’d also instantly have a record of where we are. Combine that with the possibility of the marketing software Technical Markus wrote about last week, that eavesdrop on you 24/7, being co-opted to listen and record all of your conversations, and it makes for a genuinely frightening picture.
I have no doubt that a fair few people will call me paranoid. But I urge you to consider two things. First, consider how interception and anti-terror laws have been used so far, to convict people of littering, letting their dogs foul on the street. Oh, and to implement the now-infamous freeze on Icelandic banks not to mention the arrest of Walter Wolfgang for heckling at a Labour conference. Notably, you may have spotted, none of those things have anything to do with ‘terrorism’.
One can’t help but assume that these new proposals around mobile phones will similarly not stop at what’s being suggested.
Secondly, consider transport secretary Geoff Hoon’s appearance on Question Time, last week, where he infamously said he’s prepared to go ‘quite a long way, actually’ in undermining people’s civil liberties, to ‘stop terrorists killing people’, and that ‘the biggest civil liberty of all is not to be killed by a terrorist’… which in itself is a massively inaccurate piece of spin, since a quick glance at Wiki will show you that, ‘Civil liberties are freedoms that protect the individual from the government. Civil liberties set limits for government so that it cannot abuse its power and interfere with the lives of its citizens,’ something completely opposite to what Geoff Hoon said…
Still, there is hope. Not only has the UK’s top prosecutor now publicly stated that state powers of monitoring and control are going too far, but every opposition party is calling the plans ‘Orwellian’. But that’s not all, some of the most vociferous opposition has come from senior officials within the Home Office. It would seem that not everyone at Whitehall is behind the plans, with officials within the Home Office calling them impractical, disproportionate and potentially unlawful.
It’s fairly easy to predict the reactions of the major mobile phone networks in this instance, as well, since it will potentially lose them a VAST number of customers, more than any ‘credit crunch’ ever could. In fact, mobile phone stalwarts Vodafone, the UK’s oldest mobile network, have already stuck their heads above the parapet and stated:
‘Vodafone does not support mandatory registration for its pre-pay customers and has not made any ‘contingency plans’ to start requiring registration for the purposes of a Government data collection scheme.
PAYG services hold an important role in terms of preventing a digital divide in communications. There is no need for a credit check and if customers do not have a permanent base, or a passport, they are not excluded from using these services.’
(Source: The Register)
It would seem they too have realised that these plans won’t actually do a great deal to prevent genuine security threats, and instead will have the mass effect of denying people who really need mobile phones having any access to them.
Finally, even if the zealous supporters of these plans within Whitehall do believe that the country is full of ‘terrorists’ and that unless they legislate mobile phones, our whole way of life is threatened, I would like to quote two incredibly influential people on the issue of freedom. Neither of them are the famous Benjamin Franklin quote, that runs ‘they who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security’, although it definitely applies here.
As Henry Bolingbroke, better known as King Henry IV, said, ‘Liberty is to the collective body, what health is to every individual body. Without health no pleasure can be tasted by man; without liberty, no happiness can be enjoyed by society.’
However, the final word goes to Abraham Lincoln, as it is surely the most poignant reminder of what we could lose:
‘Freedom is the last, best hope of earth.’
Grab your mobile phones now, before the government start penalising people without a passport!