Orwellianism on the instalment plan

Charles Arthur has written a terrific piece in Media Guardian about the implications for journalism of the new data-retention legislation.

Want to be an investigative journalist of the future? You’ll need a pen and paper, pay-as-you-go phone, and a motorbike. We’ll explain the motorbike later. But you may be an endangered species. New regulations that came into force last week – requiring telephone and internet companies to keep logs of what numbers are called, and which websites and email services and internet telephony contacts are made – have left some wondering if investigative journalism, with its need to protect sources (and its sources’ need, often, for protection), has been dealt a killer blow.

Worries focus on the fact that every government department, local council and even quango can access this telephone and internet data, given a judge’s clearance. What will they use it for? To investigate everything from treason to flytipping. Might it also be used to find out who has been tipping off a journalist on a local paper about the misdeeds of local councillors? That’s the concern.

It’s a real worry IMHO. When the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was being pushed through Parilament in 1999, some of us were concerned — and warned — about its almost infinite extensibility. And in due course we found that it was being used not just to monitor alleged terrorists, but by a local authority to spy on parents suspected of giving a false address in order to get their kids into a particular school.

The new data retention laws will make it impossible to protect journalistic sources — unless totally non-electronic channels are used. And, even then, widespread use of car number-plate recognition software will make it risky to travel to a meeting in a car. So, as Charles says, use only snail mail, unlocked SIM-cards bought with cash and travel to meetings with confidential sources on a bike.

We’re building an Orwellian state on the instalment plan.