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Proposed surveillance filter would effectively allow search of communications data database, says academic

Tools that the Government could hand to law enforcement agencies and other 'public authorities' would allow those bodies to effectively search through a "great big database" of individuals' 'communications data', an academic has claimed.20 Jul 2012

The Government has proposed reforming UK surveillance laws after intelligence agencies had said that existing powers were insufficient to monitor criminals' ever-advancing use of technology.

In its draft Communications Data Bill, published last month, the Government outlined handing the Home Secretary the power to use a 'request filter' to find information contained in "fragmented communications data". The Bill also outlines that Parliament could also designate other 'public authorities' to use the filter. According to the Bill the filter could not be used unless it was "both necessary and proportionate" to do so.

Dr Julian Richards, co-director of Buckingham University's centre for security and intelligence studies, told the Joint Committee of MPs and Peers that is scrutinising the draft Bill that the system would operate similar to searching through a database, according to a report by the BBC.

"By using this filter mechanism it will look and feel the same as if there was a great big database behind the scenes that you could dip into to pull the particular information you want," he said. The academic said it would be more accurate to describe the 'request filter' as a search engine.

In 2009 the previous Labour Government ruled out the creation of a single database for storing details of web use, emails and phone calls made by people in the UK. It said that it was the "most effective" solution but ruled it out on privacy grounds. The Information Commissioner's Office had called it "a step too far for the British way of life".

According to the Home Office's draft Bill the 'request filter' would "inform a public authority of the communications data which is available to resolve a specific enquiry; and enable that authority to judge whether in that context the request for data remains necessary and proportionate". It would also "obtain, process and filter communications data needed to resolve more complex requests so that only data (specified in the authorisation) which identifies the key facts about a communication is passed to a public authority."

In addition the 'request filter' would "protect privacy and minimise necessary interference with the rights of telecommunications users by processing the data without human intervention, and destroying any communications data irrelevant to the investigation," according to the Bill.