ICO distances itself from government snooping plans (UPDATED)

By Chris Middleton
04 Apr 2012 View Comments
GCHQ Cheltenham

Data protection and privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office is struggling to distance itself from growing controversy over government plans – at this stage still under discussion – to allow unprecedented interception of online communications and calls.

If adopted, the proposals, which have caused a public outcry over snooping, would grant GCHQ (pictured) unprecedented access to online communications and calls data. Such a move would risk putting a further strain on business at a time when European data protection regulations are already a fraught and complex area. 

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They might also undermine the ICO's role as guardian of data protection and privacy standards.

The ICO has issued a statement saying: "The Information Commissioner's role in this Home Office project, both under this government and the last, has been to press for the necessary limitations and safeguards to mitigate the impact on citizens' privacy."

The statement was issued as Home Office estimates that the scheme would cost £2bn over the first decade were published.

"We will continue to seek assurances, including the implementation of the results of a thorough Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA)," said the ICO.

"Ultimately, the decision as to whether to proceed with the project is one which has to be taken by Parliament," it added.

Speaking to Computing, a spokesman for the ICO agreed that the storm of criticism over the plans was "a concern" for the ICO, but stressed that no official comment could be made as the plans had yet to be formally announced in the Queen's Speech.

In response to the outcry, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said that the proposals may now be put before Parliament in draft form. In this case, they would not be included in the Queen's Speech.

Despite the lack of formal announcement, Home Secretary Theresa May added to the hysteria by issuing a strongly worded statement on 3 April saying that the proposals were necessary as she was "not willing to risk more terrorist plots succeeding and more paedophiles going free".

Speaking to Computing after May's comments were published, the ICO spokesman said that any regulation must be "appropriate and proportionate" to the need, but stressed that it was a matter for the Home Office.

However, a Freedom of Information request has revealed that the ICO had said in internal documents in 2010 that a convincing case for such a plan had not been made, and that there were risks any such legislation could lead to innocent people being accused of criminal activity.

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