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Home Office snooping plans are almost unchanged

FOR IMMEDIATE USE: 15 September 2003

In June 2002 the Home Office backed down in the face of the outrage that greeted their totally disproportionate proposals for access to communications data (records of email senders and receivers, phone numbers called or web pages visited). Last week they gave the impression of a change of heart, yet closer examination of the detail of their proposals shows that their plans are almost entirely unchanged.

The Home Office have also been hinting at criminal penalties for misuse of communications data, extra scrutiny of the new bodies by the Interception Commissioner and a scheme to prevent authorities from continuing to use their existing powers under so-called "legacy legislation". The Draft Regulations laid before Parliament last Friday contain none of these measures.

The new Regulations do contain significantly more detail than has ever been provided before. Previously, for example, the whole of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was listed and now it is made clear that only three investigative branches are to be authorised. They also exclude access to mobile phone location data for some of these organisations.

However, careful analysis of the schedules of agencies that are to be authorised shows that only one of the 24 categories of bodies that were to be given access to data in 2002 has been dropped from the Government's list. That body was the Department of Work and Pensions, which has its own legacy legislation to allow access to Benefit Fraud investigators. In fact, far from the Home Office restricting the bodies that might access data, three new ones (the Charity Commission, the Serious Fraud Office and the Gaming Board for Great Britain) have been added to the list.

Ian Brown, Director of FIPR, commented: "The Home Office have failed to understand that it is unacceptable for government officials to authorise themselves to snoop on who we have been calling or which websites we have been looking at. Even where crimes are serious enough for this to be justified, it is vital to have a proper oversight routine and criminal penalties for those who misuse their powers."

He continued: "They are resurrecting, and indeed extending, the same proposals that were rejected last year. The 'spin' is that this is a new approach, but the Home Office have delivered none of the safeguards they have been hinting at. Underneath the paint job is the same ugly scheme."

Contact for enquiries:

Ian Brown
Director
Foundation for Information Policy Research
ian@fipr.org
07970 164 526 (from outside the UK: +44 7970 164 526)

Links:

FIPR Surveillance and Security pages

FIPR information on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act as it passed through Parliament in 1999/2000

Notes for editors

  1. The Foundation for Information Policy Research (http://www.fipr.org) is an independent body that studies the interaction between information technology and society. Its goal is to identify technical developments with significant social impact, commission and undertaken research into public policy alternatives, and promote public understanding and dialogue between technologists and policy-makers in the UK and Europe.
  2. In early summer 2002 the Home Office brought forward an obscure Statutory Instrument, whose effect was to dramatically widen the range of public authorities that could access communications data. FIPR was the first organisation to draw attention to its ramifications. You can read the original press release and SI.
  3. Investigators into Social Security Fraud can access communications data via s1 of the Social Security Fraud Act 2001.
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