U.K. Home Office Proposes Broad Surveillance Powers

Tod Hunter
LONDON — A new proposal from the U.K.'s Home Office has proposed sweeping new regulations that would give local city councils, health authorities and hundreds of other public bodies the ability to access details of anyone's personal text, emails and Internet use. The measure would also cover VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) calls.

The regulation is the result of a directive from the European Union, so information gathered also can be available to public investigators across Europe.

On its website, the Home Office identifies itself as the government agency charged with "leading the national effort to protect the public from terrorism, crime and anti-social behavior."

Home Office officials want to require 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 crimes or other threats to public safety, admitting that the measure will mean companies have to store "a billion incidents of data exchange a day" at an estimated cost of $93 million.

The Home Office said storing communications data is vital in the fight against terrorism.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats branded the measure a "snooper's charter."

When the measure was initially suggested after the 2005 London bombings by the then home secretary, it was justified on the grounds that it was needed to investigate terrorist plots and organized crime. The current Home Office document says that the personal data now will be available for many different sorts of crime and public order investigations — and may even be used to prevent people harming themselves. The measure will mean that details of personal Internet and text 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 Home Office confirmed yesterday that access to personal Internet and text data will also be available to all public bodies licensed under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, so hundreds of public bodies including local councils, health authorities, the Food Standards Agency and the Health and Safety Commission will be able to require telecommunications companies to hand over personal data.

It is already mandatory for telecommunications companies to keep records of all mobile and landline phone traffic. They voluntarily store electronic Internet data as well, but the Home Office said yesterday they now had 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.

The government plans to introduce a communications bill which 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.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said that ministers had proved time and again they were not to be trusted with sensitive data but they seemed 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."