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Theresa May's grip tightens on the paradox of privacy

There is a distinguished writer and historian of my acquaintance who refuses to use email.

He won't have it. He declines to believe, on historical grounds, that the technology represents the kind of temptation governments can resist. Paranoid, eh?

You might wonder how he gets by. Sometimes it seems we are, each of us, under a distinct pressure, subtle and not so subtle, to be amazed that anyone could still live in the modern world with such an attitude. Luddism, we (wrongly) call it.

Who can exist without email, the mobile, Skype, Facebook, the Twitter account, search engines and an online existence? One answer, perhaps surprising, is "millions of people". They've seen the future and said: "No thanks".

According to an August bulletin from the Office for National Statistics – found online, obviously – 21 million households now have internet access. That amounts to 80% of the total. It means 5.2m households have no access, and of those 54% report they "don't need it".

They are a diminishing group, and their resistance is probably futile. Government departments, in particular, behave as though internet interaction has become compulsory. Since 2010, for example, most VAT-registered businesses, in the words of HMRC, "have been required to submit their VAT returns online and pay any VAT due electronically". When was a vote taken?

It's not just officialdom. Of the gadgets and media mentioned, I use email – chiefly to file this column – and a BlackBerry. Otherwise, I dissent, mostly because I can't be bothered. I tell myself the phone is "more secure" than most, and that occasional mentions of terrorism in the emails must have been discounted long ago.

Still they come creeping. Google persists in asking for my mobile phone number "just in case". Amazon bombards me with offers because, living rurally, I have to buy books from the tax avoider that destroys local bookshops. Yet the sense of an electronic trail, fascinating to the powerful, is strong, even for a reluctant user of technology.

It counts as the paradox of privacy. While Lord Justice Leveson toils to settle the hash of phone hackers, while politicians struggle to balance freedom of speech with individual rights, the rest of us give away personal information freely, each and every day. Then we fret over Government spying.

They don't have to snoop – whoever "they" happen to be – but the urge is irresistible. The affliction is common in home secretaries. In opposition, few are more vigilant in privacy's defence. In government, perhaps after the right chip has been inserted, the tune changes. So it is with Theresa May.

When Labour was in power and intent on creating a system for storing everyone's email and internet records, her party was promising to "roll back the database state". As with ID cards, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats were united in opposing an affront to liberty. These days, chip activated, Ms May is Big Brother's new best friend.

It turns out that to protect us from terrorism or paedophiles – or whatever this year's horror happens to be – the Government needs sight of that email wishing granny a Merry Christmas. Countries everywhere are increasing their internet surveillance, Ms May says, and "we" – can she mean us? – "must not get left behind". It is therefore vitally important that the following message is intercepted: Theresa May is an idiot.

Luckily for me, that's not just my opinion. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, have just torn her proposed legislation to shreds. Meanwhile, the scrutiny committee of MPs and peers, complete with a Tory chairman and a former Cabinet Secretary, have told Ms May to rewrite her draft Data Communications Bill. Sometimes the great and good have their uses.

The scrutiny committee is not impressed that Ms May does not seek one giant database. A system to connect lots of repositories in a "federated database of all UK citizens' communication data" through storage by net and phone companies is judged to be just as bad, if not worse.

The scrutiny committee, chaired by Lord Blencathra, want answers: what will the data be used for, and what safeguards will be in place? Having interviewed the security services and the police – privately, of course – the security committee is equally alarmed. It too wants a definition of the categories of information liable to be held for a year at a time. Ms May just wants it all.

If her proposals succeed she will acquire "sweeping powers", say the scrutineers, achieve "overkill" and trample on privacy. They worry over "request filters" – who gets access? – and a lack of consultation. Guided no doubt by Lord Armstrong, the former Cabinet Secretary, the committee is meanwhile scornful of the Home Office's "fanciful and misleading" claim that the system would cost only £1.8 billion over 10 years.

Confronted with such criticisms, most home secretaries would think again. Ms May also has to contend – for what it's worth – with Nick Clegg. He insisted on appraisal by the scrutiny committee. Now he says: "We cannot proceed with this Bill and we have to go back to the drawing board". That's that, then?

The Government now concedes that the Bill has to be redrafted, but neither Ms May nor the Home Office need be daunted. The latter never gives up on the chance to intrude on privacy in the name of law and order. Terrorism has been a godsend: it excuses everything. But so, too, does our modern habit of surrendering information. The question arises: which of us truly cares about being spied upon?

There are already more than 500,000 requests a year for data from internet and phone companies. No-one claims half a million crimes have been prevented. Ms May and the Home Office have meanwhile put in an extravagant bid for power, and will probably settle for what they really wanted all along.

Meanwhile, the pressure builds, week upon week, to put our lives online. If we're innocent, why worry? Consider: under Ms May's plans 600 official bodies could win the right to sift your records. They're not all coppers.

Mr Clegg could put a stop to it all, of course, under the terms of the Coalition deal. But if you put your trust in that you probably believe your emails are secure.

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