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Government gives more detail on communications surveillance plan

The Government has postponed planned legislation which could create a giant central database containing records of every email, web session and phone call made in the UK.16 Oct 2008

Advert: free OUT-LAW Breakfast Seminars - 1. Making your contract work: pitfalls and best practices; 2. Transferring data: the information security issuesThe Government said before summer that it would create new communications legislation that would make the recording of the fact of communications, though not their content, compulsory.

It has emerged that that law had been planned for the end of this year but will now be postponed until next year following consultation.

Government sources have told reporters that one option is to create a single, Government-operated database of call and web use records but that there would be a public consultation on measures before the law is passed.

The Government has announced that any law would extend the powers of communications logging so that they could track the use of communications through websites such as social networking sites.

Law enforcement agencies can currently gain access to records kept by telecoms providers about which number or computer contacted which other number or computer, for how long and when as well as any location data that the operator has.

Providers are compensated by the state for the costs of providing such information. One current Home Office proposal, sources have told reporters, is that a single public database would track and provide that information.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research yesterday that the Government would act on communications surveillance and would extend the reach into new forms of communication.

"Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime, including child sex abuse, murder and drugs trafficking," said Smith.

"Communications Data – that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves – is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004."

"But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted," she said.

Authorities' use of information on phone calls and web use is possible because companies track usage data for billing purposes. That is not true of alternative messaging systems such as internet-based phone technology or social networking messaging and the Government is said to be keen to track such use.

The changes will be part of the Data Communications Bill, which will also transpose into UK law the EU's Data Retention Directive. This asks member states to make it a legal requirement that communications records are kept for between six and 24 months, though it does not require that the information be kept on a Government database.

Privacy watchdog the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said earlier this year that it opposed the creation of a new single database containing communications records.

‘If the intention is to bring all mobile and internet records together under one system, this would give us serious concerns and may well be a step too far," said Jonathan Bamford, assistant Information Commissioner. "We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen’s phone and internet records."

Smith said that a consultation on the new law would take place in the New Year.