Government prioritises new laws on data monitoring and retention

By Graeme Burton
09 May 2012 View Comments
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The government is forging ahead with much-criticised plans to allow police and intelligence agencies to access personal communications information.

The draft Communications Bill, announced in the Queen's speech, will make it easier for government agencies to monitor details of people's emails, phone calls and internet usage in a plan described by civil liberties groups as a "snooper's charter". A proposed amendment to the European Union (EU) directive on which it is based might add search engine data as well.

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The measures will not enable police and intelligence agencies to access the contents of emails and telephone conversations, but will include contacts, time and duration of communications, telephone numbers and email addresses and possibly even the location of respondents.

Telecoms companies and internet service providers will be required to keep the information for 12 months and to protect it from unauthorised access or disclosure. The Interception of Communications Commissioner will oversee the process and handle complaints. The Commissioner was established under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

However, privacy campaigners warned that the proposed law represents a "huge increase" in the level of government surveillance of the general population.

"People need to be suspected before they're put under surveillance – that's how the law should work, but what the government's saying is: 'Were going to treat you all as suspects, and ask you to trust us not to abuse that data'," Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, told Sky News.

He added: "These are very dangerous measures – they cross a line, they take us from targeting people that we suspect, to targeting everybody and really lowering the barriers of what the government can find out about you without going through a court."

The Bill is a resurrection of the Communications Data Bill 2008, which was introduced by the previous Labour government. That was lambasted by both Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties when they were in opposition. Chris Huhne, for example, then Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The government's Orwellian plans for a vast database of our private communications are deeply worrying."

In fact, the single "vast database" concept may no longer apply. The trend of recent government announcements about data sharing is towards dynamic sharing across multiple services – often in partnership with private firms in shared services initiatives.

Certainly this is what has been proposed by Cabinet Officer Minister Francis Maude, who sees data sharing as offering a commercial growth opportunity for the UK.

Such an environment, which Computing has termed 'The Data Bank of England', is potentially much harder to regulate and secure, and pushes responsibility away from Whitehall and towards loose affiliations of organisations with different agendas. A form of data free market, in effect, with Whitehall as the state banker.

However, supporters of the Bill point out that it represents a long-overdue translation of the European Union's Data Retention Directive 2006, which stipulates the range of information that EU member states' communications companies must retain.

A proposed amendment to the Directive, Written Declaration 29, would extend it to include search engine results.

The authors of the Declaration, Italian Member of European Parliament (MEP) Tiziano Motti and Slovakian MEP Anna Záborská, justified it by saying that it would provide an "early warning system for paedophiles and sex offenders".

This was the precise theme picked up by Home Secretary Theresa May in a tabloid opinion piece earlier this year, which was widely seen as an hysterical over-reaction and an excuse to monitor everyone in the UK, while true cyber-criminals would remain undetected.

• Additional reporting Chris Middleton

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