Campaigners opposed to the UK government's controversial data retention policies are going on the counter-offensive.
Ahead of a public debate on the subject in London tomorrow, Privacy International is calling on consumers to initiate Subject Access Requests for their data from communications providers. It plans to publish set of template letters for people to use (click here for ISP, fixed line and mobile requests.
Privacy International director Simon Davies said the campaign aims to raise awareness about just how much data is out there, how difficult it is to get that data, and to discover how the comms providers deal with these issues.
He acknowledges that the campaign is likely to prove controversial - not least because of the cost service providers might face in servicing these requests - but says that the government's lack of openness has forced campaigners' hands.
"We are sick and tired of the secrecy that surrounds this important activity," he told us. "Industry and the Home Office have cut the consumer (and privacy rights) out of the equation, to the point where the only negotiations taking place relate to government subsidy for access."
"The extent of data retention and access is now beyond reasonable levels," he told us.
Privacy International estimates, based on Customs & Excise statistics, that there are between 500,000 and a million government requests a year for this data, involving perhaps hundreds of millions of individual communications.
Someone to watch over me
The Home Office created controversy last summer when it attempted to allow a long list of public authorities to access records of individuals' telephone and Internet usage. This "communications data" - phone numbers and e-mail addresses contacted, web sites visited, locations of mobile phones etc. - would (campaigners say) have been available without any judicial oversight, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
This data does not include the contents of messages or telephone calls.
There has also been ongoing argument about government powers to force telephone companies and ISPs to keep copies of such communications data. Under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, the Home Secretary may require companies to store this data for long periods to allow later access by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The Home Office is now consulting over both issues before taking further action.
The government wants to introduce data retention, where service providers are obliged to keep data on everyone, in case it is subsequently needed for investigations into serious crime or terrorism.
ISPs, backed by many MPs but not the government, favour a lower impact lower impact scheme of targeted data preservation, where service providers would retain data on specified individuals at the request of the police.
Currently, ISPs retain data only for billing purposes (that's the theory, anyway). But soon they will have to retain communications data for at least a year, under provision in last year's Anti-Terrorism Crime & Security Act (ATCS).
Scrambling for Safety
Tomorrow (Wednesday, May 14) Privacy International and the Foundation for Information Policy Research will be hosting a public meeting on communications data retention and access at the London School of Economics.
This is the only public meeting during the current government consultation on this issue. The Home Office, the European Commission and industry will be speaking. More details on this meeting (Scrambling for Safety 6) can be found here. ®
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