‘Snooper’s charter’ to check SMSs, emails in UK

Local councils, health authorities and hundreds of other public bodies in the United Kingdom are to be given the power to access details of everyone’s personal SMS, email and internet use under Home Office proposals published on Tuesday.

Ministers want to make it mandatory for telephone and internet companies to keep details of all personal internet traffic for at least 12 months so it can be accessed for investigations into crime or other threats to public safety.

The Home Office on Tuesday night admitted that the measure will mean companies have to store ”a billion incidents of data exchange a day”. As the measure is the result of a European Union directive, the data will be made available to public investigators across Europe.

The consultation paper published on Tuesday estimates that it will cost the internet industry more than £50-million to store the mountain of data.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats on Tuesday night branded the measure a ”snooper’s charter”.

When the measure was floated after the London bombings in 2005 by the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, it was justified on the grounds that it was needed to investigate terrorist plots and organised crime. But the Home Office document makes clear that the personal data will now be available for all sorts of crime and public order investigations and may even be used to prevent people self-harming.

The measure will mean that details of personal internet and SMS traffic, but not the content, will have to be made available by telecommunications companies to public sector officials investigating crime, or to ”protect the public”.

The measure will also cover VoIP — voice over internet protocol — calls such as Skype.

Data to be handed over
The Home Office confirmed on Tuesday that access to personal internet and SMS data will also be available to all public bodies licensed under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

This means that hundreds of public bodies including local councils, health authorities, the Food Standards Agency, the Health and Safety Commission and even the education standards watchdog, Ofsted, will be able to require telecommunications companies to hand over the personal data.

It is already mandatory for telecommunications companies such as BT, Orange and O2 to keep records of all cellphone and landline phone traffic. They voluntarily store electronic internet data as well. But the Home Office said on Tuesday they now have to make it mandatory because of a European directive requiring all such personal data to be collected across all EU states.

This is justified on the grounds that much of the information is already stored as billing information by the companies.

Clarke campaigned strongly in Europe for the measure to be adopted after the 7/7 bombings in London.

The government has already indicated that it intends to go one step further this autumn by introducing a draft communications Bill that would require all the telecommunications companies to hand over this data to one central ”super” database so that the police and other public authorities will be able to access it directly without having to make a request each time to the individual company holding the records.

‘Vital tool’
A Home Office spokesperson said that historic communications data is a vital tool to investigations and intelligence gathering in support of national security and crime. ”This data allows investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time,” he said.

”It also gives investigators the potential to identify other forensic opportunities, identify witnesses and premises of evidential interest. Many alibis are proven or refuted through the use of communications data. Without the EC directive, investigative opportunities will be increasingly lost.”

But the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesperson, Chris Huhne, said that ministers have proved time and again they are not to be trusted with sensitive data but they seem intent on pressing ahead with this snooper’s charter. ”We will be told it is for use in combating terrorism and organised crime, but if Ripa powers are anything to go by, it will soon be used to spy on ordinary people’s kids, pets and bins.”

The shadow home secretary, Dominic Grieve, added: ”Yet again the government have proved themselves unable to resist the temptation to take a power quite properly designed to combat terrorism to snoop on the lives of ordinary people in everyday circumstances.”

The chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, last month criticised local councils for ”a serious misunderstanding of the concept of proportionality” in their use of their intrusive surveillance powers. — guardian.co.uk

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