Growing up in Tehran, Fred Ghahramani remembers being told by his mother to be careful with what he said on the telephone because “the secret police is always listening”. After several members of his family disappeared, Mr Ghahramani’s father, an academic from an ethnic minority, escaped with his family to Canada when the boy was just nine years old.
But his childhood fears of Ayatollah Khomeini’s security service remain fresh in Mr Ghahramani’s mind. It is why the Vancouver-based tech entrepreneur has pledged $1m to help campaign groups fight what he sees as a growing encroachment on privacy and civil liberties in his adopted country and in other major democracies.
“You could hear them on the other end of the line — it was quite comical that they might want to listen to a child, but you still had to be careful with what you said. You had to second guess your thoughts,” Mr Ghahramani says.
“I am not saying we are there yet, but my great worry is that we are sleepwalking into that same kind of environment.”
Canada, Australia, France, New Zealand and others have introduced powers to give security services and police far-reaching surveillance powers. No country, however, is going quite as far as the UK in creating laws that give government agencies the ability and the right to gather information. Adding to traditional forms of targeted surveillance, security services will soon have new powers to mine information about individuals via the explosion in data generated by smartphones and tablets.
The UK’s investigatory powers bill — which is due to complete its final stages of parliamentary scrutiny in the autumn — formalises existing powers for security services to hack smartphones and computers, and trawl vast data sets. It also provides new powers to force internet companies to hand over, without a warrant, details of every website an individual visits and every app they use, and to hold that information for up to 12 months. The companies must also create systems so that the information can be accessed on demand via a single searchable database.
It will give government agencies powers beyond those in the US and most other western democracies. If it becomes law, the UK would be alone with Russia as the only two countries in the world that force companies to keep track of customers’ browsing histories.
Privacy campaigners, tech companies and politicians have raised concerns that if a nation with the democratic checks and balances of the UK is taking such action, others will follow.