UK surveillance program could expose private lives

Associated Press Modified: May 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm •  Published: May 18, 2012

LONDON (AP) — British officials have given their word: "We won't read your emails."

But experts say the government's proposed new surveillance program will gather so much data that spooks won't have to read your messages to guess what you're up to.

The U.K. Home Office stresses it won't be reading the content of every Britons' communications, saying the data it seeks "is NOT the content of any communication." It is, however, looking for information about who's sending the message and to whom, where it's sent from and other details, including a message's length and its format.

The proposal, unveiled last week as part of the government's annual legislative program, is just a draft bill, so it could be modified or scrapped. But if passed in its current form, it would put a huge amount of personal data at the government's disposal, which it could use to deduce a startling amount about Britons' private lives — from sleep patterns to driving habits or even infidelity.

"We're really entering a whole new phase of analysis based on the data that we can collect," said Gerald Kane, an information systems expert at Boston College. "There is quite a lot you can learn."

The ocean of information is hard to fathom. Britons generate 4 billion hours of voice calls and 130 billion text messages annually, according to industry figures. In 2008, the BBC put the annual number of U.K.-linked emails at around 1 trillion.

Then there are instant messaging services run by companies such as BlackBerry, Internet telephone services such as Skype, chat rooms, and in-game services like those used by World of Warcraft.

Communications service providers, who would log all that back-and-forth, believe the government's program would force them to process petabytes (1 quadrillion bytes) of information every day. It's a mind-boggling amount of data, on the scale of every book, movie and piece of music ever released.

So even without opening emails, how much can British spooks learn about who's sending them?

THEY'LL SEE THE RED FLAGS

Did you know how fast you were going?

Your phone does.

If you sent a text from London before stepping behind the wheel, and a second one from a service station outside Manchester three hours later, authorities could infer that you broke the speed limit to cover the roughly 200 miles that separate the two.

Crunching location data and communications patterns gives a remarkably rich view of people's lives — and their misadventures.

Ken Altshuler, of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, raves about the benefits smartphones and social media have brought to savvy divorce attorneys. Lawyers don't need sophisticated data mining software to spot evidence of infidelity or hints of hidden wealth when they review phone records or text traffic, he said.

"One name, one phone number that's not on our client's radar, and our curiosity is piqued," he said. The more the communication — a late-night text sent to a work colleague, an unexplained international phone call — is out of character, "the more of a red flag we see."

THEY'LL KNOW WHEN YOU'RE SLEEPING

The ebb and flow of electronic communication —that call to your mother just before bed, that early-morning email to your boss saying you'll be late — frames our waking lives.