A victory for privacy?
28 Apr 2009

ian-brown1The government’s climbdown on a central communications database is welcome, says Ian Brown. But plans are still afoot to gather more and more Internet users’ details

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has announced she is stepping back from plans for a central database containing details of UK citizens’ communications, recognising that there is ‘a delicate balance between privacy and security’. Public consultation on the £12 billion ‘Interception Modernisation Programme’ had been pushed back several times since last year amid growing public concern over the government’s surveillance powers.

However, the Home Office consultation document published yesterday, ‘Protecting the public in a changing communications environment’ shows they are moving ahead with plans to require the UK’s Internet Service Providers to gather more data on their customers’ activities than ever before. In addition to existing records of phone calls and locations, text messages, emails and website visits, ISPs have revealed that the Home Office wishes to install ‘probes’ in their networks to gather information about Skype calls, instant messages, overseas webmail services and communications on sites such as Facebook and Second Life. They would allow real-time government access to all communications. This level of monitoring would be unprecedented in the democratic world.

The government has previously claimed that records of communications are relatively innocuous compared to the contents of phone calls and emails. However, as Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne has commented: ‘It is simply not that easy to separate the bare details of a call from its content. What if a leading business person is ringing Alcoholics Anonymous, or a politician’s partner is arranging to hire a porn video?’ The European Union’s data protection commissioners resolved in 2006 that ‘the decision to retain communication data for the purpose of combating serious crime is an unprecedented one with a historical dimension. It encroaches into the daily life of every citizen and may endanger the fundamental values and freedoms all European citizens enjoy and cherish.’

The consultation includes details of a number of serious crimes solved in part using communications data. The Home Secretary tells us that ‘information gathered in this way can mean the difference between life and death’. However, the government refuses to disclose how many of the 519,260 accesses by government agencies to communications data in 2007 would fall into this category, or provide any assessment of the benefit they expect for the cost of their proposals of £2 billion over the next decade.

There is little meaningful oversight of data access, which is signed off by senior officials for a range of purposes that go far beyond the investigation of serious crime. Local councils have been widely criticised for using their surveillance powers for purposes such as investigating school applications and dog fouling. Parts of the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s annual report to the prime minister are published, but his office has resources to investigate only a very small proportion of cases. Individuals are not informed after any investigations have concluded and so have little ability to challenge surveillance after it has taken place.

While the government’s retreat from a central database of everyone’s online activities is to be welcomed, we should not lose sight of the invasiveness (and expense) of their remaining proposals. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling said today that ‘too many parts of Government have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that’s really got to change’. The UK should not be leading democracies and autocracies alike in wiretapping the Internet.

Ian Brown is a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute

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