An overlooked aspect of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill is the significance of demanding that service providers store 12 months’ internet connection records. A record of every website visited and internet service connected to, the government presents this as the online equivalent of an itemised phone bill. But this is a false analogy: internet connection records carry far more detail than a phone book, and the government’s move to claim them represents an unprecedented intrusion into our lives.
Supporters of the bill suggest that this data provides a way of checking that someone accessed Facebook at a particular time, just as phone records can reveal that a user called a particular number at a certain time. But while this is true, it misunderstands the role the internet has in our lives, and consequently underplays how much it can reveal.
The phone is a communications tool, but we have complex online lives and use the internet for many things other than “communication”. We do almost everything online: we bank online, we shop, find relationships, listen to music, watch television and films, plan our holidays, read about and indulge our interests.
Access to the websites we visit, for an entire year, is not at all comparable to having an itemised telephone bill. It’s more equivalent to tailing someone as they visit the shops, the pub, the cinema, listen to the radio, go to the park and on holiday, read books and magazines and newspapers, and much more.
It’s not just the data that’s revealing, it’s the sort of direct, logical inferences that can be made given a web browsing history. For example, from the fact that someone visits sites connected with a particular religion, one can infer that they follow that religion. If they visit sites regarding a particular health condition, it’s possible to infer that they may suffer from that condition, or are worried about their health.