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Proposed UK Communications Law Could Be Used To Spy On Physical Mail 125

Posted by timothy
from the old-bailey's-long-planned-demolition dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The BBC reports that the UK's Draft Communications Bill includes a provision which could be used to force the Royal Mail and other mail carriers to retain data on all physical mail passing through their networks. The law could be used to force carriers to maintain a database of any data written on the outside of an envelope or package which could be accessed by government bodies at will. Such data could include sender, recipient and type of mail (and, consequentially, the entire contents of a postcard). It would provide a physical analog of the recently proposed internet surveillance laws. The Home Office claims that it has no current plans to enforce the law."
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Proposed UK Communications Law Could Be Used To Spy On Physical Mail

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  • Be very afraid... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by frostilicus2 (889524) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @03:43PM (#40353553)
    Someone should really tell the guys in power that 1984 was more of warning and less of a plan. Guess the old e-petition becomes invalid now: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/32400 [direct.gov.uk]
  • by NettiWelho (1147351) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @03:44PM (#40353565)
    "The Home Office claims that it has no current plans to enforce the law." Really? Then why is the provision in the bill then? If you dont need and dont plan on enforcing it why is it being passed then?
    • by mcavic (2007672) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @04:31PM (#40353873)
      Because if they decide to implement it in the future, they can do so without taking the time to pass a new law. And "current" means today, not tomorrow.
    • by Blue Stone (582566) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @04:48PM (#40353987) Homepage Journal

      They say "no current plans" not "no current intentions".

      They have the intention of using it, they just haven't got around to drawing up the plans yet.

      Politicians lie. Even when they're telling the truth.

    • by mwvdlee (775178)

      "The Home Office claims that it has no current plans to enforce the law."
      Rough translation:
      "The Home Office will start next week making plans to enforce the law."

    • by Kijori (897770) <ward@jake.gmail@com> on Sunday June 17, 2012 @05:09PM (#40354167)

      It is enabling legislation - a statute that allows particular laws to be passed by secondary legislation (also called a statutory instrument - basically legislation that is 'passed' by a minister or a committee of ministers rather than the entire Parliament). It may sound undemocratic but it's inevitable - Parliament could not possibly scrutinise and pass enough legislation to deal with the pace at which the world changes. The power has to be devolved somewhere, and devolving it to Ministers at least has the advantage that someone visible is accountable for it, which means that the power is generally used sensibly and sparingly.

      In this case the power, to my mind, seems more extensive than is appropriate for secondary legislation - I'm not defending it, just explaining why it is being done the way it is. There is some comfort in the fact that the Bill is still in the very early stages of the process and extensive secondary powers are the sort of thing that are often removed or curtailed during the debates.

    • "It is at first denied that any radical new plan exists; it is then conceded that it exists but ministers swear blind that it is not even on the political agenda; it is then noted that it might well be on the agenda but is not a serious proposition; it is later conceded that it is a serious proposition but that it will never be implemented; after that it is acknowledged that it will be implemented but in such a diluted form that it will make no difference to the lives of ordinary people; at some point it is
  • Hmm... (Score:5, Funny)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @03:47PM (#40353589)

    Potential Terrorist 391,496, mail log:
    Received junk mail from Direct Marketing Alliance.
    Received junk mail from Insurance company
    Received junk mail from Direct Marketing Alliance.
    Received junk mail from "V14GR4 4 U"
    Received junk mail from Derp's Amazing Electronics.
    Received copy of Harry Potter 4 via Netflix.
    ...

    Well, on one hand, a warrant should be needed for any kind of surveillance. Monitoring activity pre-warrant shouldn't be legal. That said... snail mail is dying. It's mostly just junk mail, bills, and packages ordered online. I can't see how this would have much intelligence value.... Especially since, at least in the US, if you simply reverse the sender and receiver and leave off the stamp, it'll happily go to its destination as long as it's in the same geographic area. Oh wait... was that helping the terrorists? My bad.

    • Re:Hmm... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by frostilicus2 (889524) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @03:53PM (#40353631)
      Silk Road? Bath Salts? Snail mail would also become an attractive method of communication amongst bad guys if the internet surveillance bill goes through (and it probably will).
      • Re:Hmm... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by girlintraining (1395911) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @04:25PM (#40353839)

        Silk Road? Bath Salts? Snail mail would also become an attractive method of communication amongst bad guys if the internet surveillance bill goes through (and it probably will).

        Well, mail service only verifies the delivery address, and if that fails, attempts to verify and return it to the source address. My point was that establishing a source/destination registry is not reliable like it is within a packet-switched network. The entire message is contained within a single packet, and there is no handshake or anything else in the exchange to verify the source. So the only part of the registry of high reliablity would be the destination and the size/weight of the package.

        And even that's easy enough for a criminal to forge; You don't have to deliver stolen goods to your address. Any address will do for a drop shipment. So this bill is really only for the surveillance of average people, who are probably not criminals, but who might need to become criminals if they became, say, politically active.

      • No, anonymous online accounts with full encryption will be.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Can't they just open the letters up anyway?

    Really, if you think your mail is secure, I've got a bridge that was just mailed to me from London to sell you.

  • by Air-conditioned cowh (552882) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @03:55PM (#40353647)
    "The Home Office claims that it has no current plans to enforce the law." Similar assurances were made to the jews by the Nazi party when they were encircling them with laws in the 1930s.
    • by Mashiki (184564) <mashiki@gmailCURIE.com minus physicist> on Sunday June 17, 2012 @05:22PM (#40354283) Homepage

      Greetings from post WWII Europe and East Germany. Where the STASI did exactly this, and neighbors spied on each other. I wonder how long before the underground springs up and things start getting smuggled around? Well I'm sure there's a few ex-east germans who would be more than willing to give the Brit's tips on how to do it.

      • No need for that, the US intelligence agencies opened mail of citizens of East Germany who wrote to the West as well. That is, IIRC they had the BND carrying the sacks from the post office, opening the envelope with a bit of steam or whatever, taking note of anti-government jokes (i.e. there wasn't really ever anything interesting in them), closing them and bringing them back. That actually routinely happened (not "opening ALL mail", but open some, randomly stabbing in the dark as it were) according to to a

    • by kamapuaa (555446)

      I wouldn't be so quick to talk. Hitler was fond of air-conditioning as well, from what I understand.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Constantly in Britain you hear of control freak legislation and technology proposals and laws. I thik they have the most CCTV per capita, they are happily extraditing any of their fellas to any country claiming IP infringement, and you constantly hear of such obsessive control of the individual. In a country with a lot of parliamentary direct democracy (they vote individual people, not party lists, and the one with most votes wins), the only logical conclusion is that the citizens want to be controlled at t

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      (1) Political apathy
      (2) "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear"
      (3)People seem to believe that there's a terrorist on every street and a pedo under every bed.
      • by 0123456 (636235) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @05:00PM (#40354057)

        (1) Political apathy

        So, which party can Britons vote for which doesn't want this stuff?

        And even if they could vote for someone, most seats are so safe that it would make no difference. Where I used to live in the UK I could vote for any party I wanted and the Tories would still win.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          It used to be the Liberal Democrats, then they finally got some power and decided that civil liberties weren't so desirable once they were in the government.

    • by newcastlejon (1483695) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @04:18PM (#40353797)
      I haven't seen the figures for the CCTV per capita but it wouldn't surprise me if Britain was among the highest, DM scaremongering notwithstanding.

      they are happily extraditing any of their fellas to any country claiming IP infringement

      That's news to me. Scary if true.

      In a country with a lot of parliamentary direct democracy (they vote individual people, not party lists, and the one with most votes wins)

      I'm guessing you aren't a Briton, because people do tend to vote for parties. Hell, I'd be surprised if more than one in ten voters could actually name their MP a week after the election; the only reason I can (it's Chi Onwurah, by the way) is that I read Hansard a lot. When I last checked there were less than a dozen independent MPs. Britain has representative democracy, not direct democracy.

      • Britain has representative democracy

        No they don't with having First Past The Post as their method for electing members of Parliament.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          No they don't with having First Past The Post as their method for electing members of Parliament.

          They truly do. The system used for electing representatives is not relevant; one could, for example, have a representative democracy where representatives are elected by sortition.

    • Re: (Score:1, Offtopic)

      by Gordonjcp (186804)

      It's actually the US that has the most CCTV per capita, *and* armed police everywhere ready to shoot you if you cross the road in the wrong place, or say something bad about the president.

      I live in the UK, and there isn't a CCTV camera within 50 miles of this place. I wish there was, it might stop manky bastards dumping rubbish at the foot of our road every other night.

    • by manicb (1633645) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @05:34PM (#40354375)

      We didn't vote for it, and we actually voted against it. None of this stuff was in the manifesto of either of the parties in the ruling coalition. They were highly critical of similar legislation when proposed by their opponents, who were turfed out in the last general election. We've had such a long run of crazy authoritarian Home Secretaries now that it's pretty clear somebody or something is getting to them, possibly through their office (or bedroom) window.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        All that means is that this programme is embedded in the Home Office civil service, and they'll keep re-proposing it under various headings until it passes one way or another. As far as they're concerned, the politicians' job is to pass the legislation they want passed.

        Next up: the National Identity Register. Remember that? I'll be astonished if the Tories don't reintroduce it in their next term, assuming they get one.

        The only cure for this sort of thing is to purge the Home Office civil service, which (in

    • by Shavano (2541114)
      Why complain about it on Slashdot? Call your MP!
  • Would the government consider it a threat if people started marking all their posts "death to fascists"?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      if people started marking all their posts "death to fascists"

      Hey! Who said you were allowed to think like me?

      How about marking posts with phrases like "Top Secret Plans To Bring Western Society To Its Knees Enclosed" and then inside put your own instructions on how to kneel for prayer services?

      Or mark the outside "Private" and inside just put a note that says "Your wife's been screwing a guy half your age and a willy twice as big as yours!"

  • by Nutria (679911) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @04:19PM (#40353801)

    on the outside of an envelope (or any part of a post card) has ever actually been private? Certainly not I, even before I knew enough to care about privacy.

    It's just not been technologically practical to store all that info, but with 3TB HDDs stuffed into 42U SAN racks, it's more than doable. And with modern CPUs and high-density RAM, OCR on even the worst penmanship is probably practical.

    • Royal Mail have actually been using OCR for at least 20 years.
      • by Nutria (679911)

        For post code sorting, as has the USPS for zip code sorting. It's why ZIP+4 was created. I'm sure every other 1st world PTT does OCR, too.

        But only now is it practical to OCR the whole front and back and then store the images and text.

        • Here in the Netherlands the TNT (or POSTNL or whatever it's called this week) switched to all electronic mail sorting a few years back. I was leaving the post back then so I don't have too many details. I believe they depend on the mailman to check the address manually (for the very few mis sorted messages) and send those back. We are talking about less than 1% of the mail.

          Storing this data as text isn't a problem, but even a small country such as the Netherlands has literally millions of pieces of mail d
    • It's been quite private though because no one's ever taken the time to look at it. Now it can all be logged, stored, processed, lost, stolen or used for blackmail. How about a Tory MP buying a DVD from a known source of Fetish porn? Even in this case you'd expect an obscured return to sender address.
    • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @05:34PM (#40354377)

      on the outside of an envelope (or any part of a post card) has ever actually been private? Certainly not I, even before I knew enough to care about privacy.

      You are overloading the term "private" - no one thought it was a secret, but only the crazies thought that the information on every single envelope was permanently recorded in a database. Crazy is the new normal.

    • by guruevi (827432)

      With a strong enough light (especially laser or x-ray) you can see through the envelopes and look at the contents. All it would really take is enough sensitivity and some post processing which could probably be automated.

      If you wonder when they implement this within 5 years why the implementation costs $500k per device and a couple of data centers you might remember this.

  • by dryriver (1010635) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @04:30PM (#40353859)
    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is INTERNATIONAL LAW, and which the UK is a signatory of, states it crystal clear in Article 12: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or CORRESPONDENCE, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks." ---------- URL here for those who want to check the validity of this claim: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a12 [un.org] ------ So UK Home Office, how the hell are you going to explain to the UNITED NATIONS that your little mail-snooping project violates ARTICLE 12 of the UDHR? -------- If you were going to pull shit like this, why did your government sign and rattify the UDHR to begin with? Why can't you just leave your citizens alone, like other civilized countries. And, finally, have you learned nothing from George Orwell's '1984'? It was published back in 1949, so you have had OVER 60 YEARS to learn something from that brilliant, brilliant piece of work, which was written by someone who was your countryman no less, who was British. ------ I give up. The more I look at the UK from a privacy perspective, the more I feel that that particular country has really gone down the drain, and perhaps irreversibly so.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      That is why there is such a campaign at the moment, amongst certain groups, to scrap the UK Human rights legislation,

      Because it keeps getting used by all these people with funny names and dark skin, you understand?

      • by dryriver (1010635)
        You cannot just "scrap" or "take back the signing of" Human Rights legislation. It would cause a serious uproar by human rights groups worldwide, were something like that to be done in a major country like Britain. ------ I think they are trying to pass some crazy Home Office law that makes inspecting correspondence legal, and then "play dumb" with regards to whether it is actually LEGAL under International Law. -----
        • You can when half of the population read the Daily Mail.
          • by dryriver (1010635)
            The one I worry about more is "The Sun". It's owned by an arch-conservative right-wing media oligarch of Australian origin who hates muslims, freedom, civil rights and good journalism to an equal extent. ----- Its seriously worrying that in a supposedly highly advanced country/democracy like Britain, junk like The Sun can sell 9 million copies a day.
          • by manicb (1633645)

            Daily Mail readership: 4,371,000 (http://www.nmauk.co.uk/nma/do/live/factsAndFigures?newspaperID=10#readership)
            The Sun readership: 7,652,000 (http://www.mediauk.com/newspapers/13707/the-sun/readership-figures) [A lot of these people will only look at the tits and sports]
            UK population: 62,232,000 (http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-kingdom)
            UK electorate in 2010 general election: 45,597,461 (http://www.ukpolitical.info/2010.htm)
            Votes in 2010 general election: 27,833,834 (http://www.ukpolitical.info/2010

        • by 0123456 (636235)

          It would cause a serious uproar by human rights groups worldwide, were something like that to be done in a major country like Britain.

          Oh, the horror.

          • by dryriver (1010635)
            What I implied is that an established Western Democracy like Britain cannot pull out of a major Human Rights treaty without causing a huge bruhaha in the international media. ------- Being a developed country and f%%king up your duty to uphold Human Rights Laws is a seriously bad combination. ----- It would cause the country in question to loose A LOT of prestige. -------- That said, the UK Govt is determined to undermine all Human Privacy it seems. Oh well, it might help solve Britain's immigration problem
            • by 0123456 (636235)

              What I implied is that an established Western Democracy like Britain cannot pull out of a major Human Rights treaty without causing a huge bruhaha in the international media.

              Like I said. The horror.

              No serious government gives a crap about what 'human rights groups' say unless what they're saying is promoting whatever policy the government wants to impose. Sadly, Britain hasn't had a serious government since the 80s.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Well, I have to say that the US (where I am at the moment) is worse off than the UK
      I went into a store a few hours ago and tried to buy a replacement PSU for my laptop. The jerks from the TSA damaged the original at LAX yesterday.
      I was regarded with suspiscion when I wanted to pay for said item with cash. 'Can I have your phone number and zip code please' asked the cashier
      'Why?' I asked
      'It is warranty purposes'
      'I don't have a zip code, I'm a visitor to your country'.
      'I will have to check with the manager to

      • by dryriver (1010635)
        America has been fucked up in the way you describe, ever since they created the whole DHS bureaucracy. ----- And don't worry about the way you are treated. Since 9/11, Americans have been doing what they did to you to practically everyone who visits their country. ----- If you had been wearing a NASCAR t-shirt and similar apparel, and had an American accent, you might have been able to buy your PSU with cash. ----- Any hint of being foreign - even British or French - and the average American cannot tell you
    • by dkf (304284)

      So UK Home Office, how the hell are you going to explain to the UNITED NATIONS that your little mail-snooping project violates ARTICLE 12 of the UDHR?

      Two points. Firstly, they have to explain it to the UK Supreme Court first, since the UDHR is incorporated into UK law (though I forget as which Act). Secondly, it's the Home Office: they can't explain shit to anyone. It's the part of government where incompetent bureaucrats are shuffled off to in order to serve their time and get to collect their pensions. They've a history of being bad at proposing legislation proportionate to actual requirements, and they're always keen to have far more powers.

      That said,

      • Two points. Firstly, they have to explain it to the UK Supreme Court first, since the UDHR is incorporated into UK law (though I forget as which Act). Secondly, it's the Home Office: they can't explain shit to anyone.

        That said, they've got another problem: implementing the proposed act is going to require a lot of money at a time when the Treasury is exceptionally keen on departments cutting their spending and the public disinclined to be keen on further security restrictions. Getting the Act through Parliament without significant neutering is going to be very hard, and articles like TFA are going to encourage the emasculation process.

        Firstly, the UDHR isn't the ECHR. The UDHR has the effect of a treaty, so is only binding on the Government, and governments are perfectly happy to ignore it, with little interference from the UN. The ECHR is sort of binding on the UK via the Human Rights Act, and yes, the UK Supreme Court (or even the English High Court) would be within its power to declare this law incompatible with the ECHR, or overturn any order issued by the Home Secretary under it. However, for that to happen, orders have to be issued

    • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is INTERNATIONAL LAW, and which the UK is a signatory of,

      The UDHR is NOT "international law".

      It isn't even a Treaty, for god's sake.

      So, no, it's not especially binding on anyone.

      You might also be interested in reading Article 29 (2). In case you're not aware, it's the escape clause - it lets you do pretty much anything by claiming it's necessary for "just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society"....

    • Nice rant, now tell the class, how is recording what is on the outside of a package "interfering with corrospondence"? Why are the automated mail rooms that currently read and track mail items not "interfering with mail", when the guy on a motorscotter reads the back of your postcard before dropping it into your mail box he is being a nosey douche, he is not breaking international law nor is he working for the ministry of truth. The only thing sinister about the whole deal is that it is a giant waste of mon
  • Might I recommend chaff.

  • Suddenly the "eye" on the top of the pyramid gains more meaning.
  • by macs4all (973270) on Sunday June 17, 2012 @05:30PM (#40354349)
    Just PGP the contents of your postcards. Should drive them crazy.

    You have to write vewy, vewy tiny, though...
    • Print them as PGP encrypted datagrams. They'll carry more text and require more storage as bitmaps until they figure that one out, which could take a while.

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      Just PGP the contents of your postcards. Should drive them crazy. .

      And obviously that wouldn't mnake the security services even sightly nervous and interested in both the sender and recipient?

  • Holy shit the right to read our personal mail? Next they'll grant themselves the ability to read our telegraphs or message pigeons!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I am so glad I live in America where we have freedom and the fourth amendment of our constitution explicitily forbids this type of thing.

    • by tehcyder (746570)

      I am so glad I live in America where we have freedom and the fourth amendment of our constitution explicitily forbids this type of thing.

      You're forgetting one huge advantage the UK has as a place to live: it's not full of Americans..

  • And some thought Rupert Murdoch was the bad guy... I bet he laughed when he read about these recent addendums to the Communications Act.
  • Back to 1654 (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lincolnshire Poacher (1205798) on Monday June 18, 2012 @02:26AM (#40356887)

    One of the key reasons that Royal Mail ( which originally conveyed the King's post ) was granted a monopoly on inland mail delivery in 1654 was so that the Private Office could intercept and read / decrypt communications as instructed by warrant.

    Additionally the Secret Office was established to covertly intercept letters; whilst the activities of the Private were recorded and acknowledged, the Secret didn't even appear on Royal Mail's expenses.

    La plus ca change...

    • by buglista (1967502)
      It's "Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose" - or as they say in Thailand, "same same, but different".
  • I send and receive small packages to/from the UK occasionally, and the failure rate has been atrocious. Something like 50% never arrives.
      I use registered mail by default now, even though the price of the mail service exceeds the value of the package. At least that way I can file a complaint (and receive some compensation) when the mail doesn't arrive.

  • The small section allowing this is just supporting in law what they already are doing. The Postmaster General of the U.S. in a recent Youtube video mentioned how we could use that data -- which we already collect. It is part of the normal processing of the mail.
  • Gosh, I'll have to remember not to put any incriminating evidence on my next postcard home on holiday. Normally of course, I would reveal my criminal and terrorist plans in detail, because obviously no one would ever be so rude as to read them.

    Another non-story from thel libertarian tinfoil hat department.

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