Writing for The Guardian, the former Lib Dem leader and spy himself Paddy Ashdown has said:
Some in this government (and even more in the last one) propose that there is a fundamental difference between the data of communications – that is, who communicated with whom – and the content – what they said. Not so. There is perhaps a difference of degree – but there is none of principle. The safeguards that apply to the first might be set at a lower level than those that apply to the second, but the basic principle remains the same in both cases. Who I sent a Twitter message to a year ago is no more the business of my government than what I said – unless there are solid reasons to make it so.
That’s an important point in the debate about online snooping.
What’s more, whilst it used to be the case that – for example – knowing who you had called from a telephone revealed far less about you than the contents of the phone call, these days the network of who you have communicated with online and which websites you have visited reveals so much about you, that even the difference of degree which Paddy Ashdown talks about is far less than it was.
A list of all the website domains you have visited gives a far greater degree of intrusion into your life than a list of phone numbers called ever used to.