U-turn on internet snooping?

22 October 2010

Author: 
Communications Officer

Today the Home Office confirmed that the previous Government’s plan to allow the police and security services to track the record of all emails, texts and phone calls made and internet sites visited of everyone in Britain is being revived, to the tune of £2bn.

Plans to set up the ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ were abandoned by the former Government ahead of the election, but they have now resurfaced in the hands of the Coalition. The Telegraph originally highlighted this section buried in the current Government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review:

"We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework. This programme is required to keep up with changing technology and to maintain capabilities that are vital to the work these agencies do to protect the public."

Communications service providers (CSPs) already hold large amounts of communications data and an EU directive that came into force in 2009 now requires that data is retained for 12 months. The proposed measure will require Internet Service Providers and telephone companies to store all the traffic details of their customers’ phone and web use for 12 months, including all third-party communications data that crosses their networks.

This represents a huge extension of the data currently being collected.  It is also unclear whether the data will be processed differently – previously mooted proposals were to require CSPs to process data on each individual.

Hundreds of public bodies, not just the police and security services, can have access to this type of data, including local authorities.  And there is no need for them to go to a court or any other body to access the data – access can be self-authorised (under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000).

While access to data already held by CSPs can be important in crime-fighting, the scope of this proposal goes beyond that which is necessary and sweeps the innocent up with the guilty.  It also comes despite the Coalition Agreement (PDF) promise just days after forming Government to "end the storage of internet and email records without good reason".

"Any move to amass more of our sensitive data and increase powers for processing would amount to a significant U-turn,” Liberty Policy Director Isabella Sankey said yesterday. “The terrifying ambitions of a group of senior Whitehall technocrats must not trump the personal privacy of law abiding Britons.”