|foundation for information policy research|
FIPR Press Release - Home Office in two minds on snooping
FOR IMMEDIATE USE : 11 March 2003
In June 2002 the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) was the first to draw attention to the Government's totally disproportionate proposals for access to communications data (records of email senders and receivers, phone numbers called or web pages visited). The Home Office apparently intended for every Whitehall or Town Hall bureaucrat to have access to this highly sensitive data. They now admit this was "not proportionate" and have set out schemes for limiting the type of data that might be accessed and the controls that might be applied.
FIPR's view is that some government agencies may have a case for accessing details of the owner of a phone number or email address, though not perhaps as many agencies as the Home Office suggest. Do Town Hall planning departments really need such powers to check up on preservation orders? What is vital are genuine internal controls to prevent misuse and also oversight by a properly funded regime that is independent of each agency. The Home Office needs to work a little harder on this aspect, and they will need to come forward with proposals for criminal offences for abuse of the system.
The case they make for allowing further access to communications data (itemised bills, geographic locations of mobile phones, web access records or email correspondents) is far weaker. The Home Office has managed to cobble together a limited number of anecdotes on cases where this has been required, but few agencies have any actual figures. Nevertheless, the picture that emerges is that this type of data is very seldom needed. The agencies will not build expertise and will not be in a position to use this data effectively. They will be far better off tapping police expertise in joint operations.
Ian Brown, Director of FIPR, commented: "The Home Office now seems to understand the problems we pointed out with their legislation last summer. They haven't quite got their new proposals right, but this seems to be a genuine consultation and we look forward to helping them improve their plans."
In contrast, the consultation on a voluntary code of practice for data retention (storing communications data on all users) is entirely disingenuous. The Home Office have not addressed the concerns expressed by the Information Commissioner, the communications industry or indeed by the parliamentary All-Party Internet Group (APIG), who published a critical report earlier this year. Companies will be breaking the law by retaining data for anti-terrorist purposes and then making it available for access for other purposes, whether they be criminal investigations or for civil lawsuits.
The Home Office seem to be avoiding the issue of cost, yet the communications industry are quoting enormous figures for data retention, well in excess of the funds that the Treasury has put aside. The examples given in the consultation (the "business case" for spending the money) fill less than half a page, and are mainly telephone examples, with no Internet involvement. The document is so poorly researched that many examples involve elapsed times that are in excess of the data retention periods actually being proposed!
Ian Brown commented: "The data retention consultation is a sham. The Home Office have failed to address any of the well-known substantive issues and are merely going through the motions so that they can come back with a compulsory scheme. Their problem is that the compulsory scheme will also be unlawful, will also be incredibly expensive and, on their own evidence, will fail to help with their problems. The Home Office needs to drop data retention and start again, perhaps with a targeted preservation scheme such as seems to be successful in the USA."
Contacts for enquiries:Richard Clayton Treasurer Foundation for Information Policy Research firstname.lastname@example.org 07887 794090
Notes for editors
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