The Home Office today unveiled revised plans to regulate access to phone and Internet records by councils and other public bodies.
The new rules, which come as an order under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, "strike the right balance" between protecting privacy and protecting the public in the fight against crime, the Home Office says.
The Government said it has radically revised its original proposals under the Act following public concerns last summer over the extent of access afforded to public bodies.
It said the new measures clearly restrict who in public authorities can access data and restrict the type of information available to them.
Which means, among other things, that Parish Councils will not be entitled to access communications data, the Government helpfully clarifies.
Ian Brown, director of influential think tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research, which has campaigned extensively on the issue, said the proposals appear to be an improvement on the Government's previously announced plans.
However he said it was difficult to comment in any depth on the proposals without seeing the statutory instrument that will accompany the Government's order.
According to a Home Office statement, the new order will:
- Restrict the type of information public authorities are granted access to
- Restrict the reasons why public bodies can be granted access to this limited information
- Only allow senior designated people within public bodies to authorise access
- Ensure regular checks on public bodies by an independent Commissioner to ensure access is not abused
Other safeguards will include delivering training to public bodies to "ensure privacy is respected" when communications data is accessed and to make sure those obtaining this sensitive data understand the law.
Communications date includes catalogues of Web sites visited, records of e-mail recipients, lists of telephone numbers dialed, and the geographical location of mobile phones at all times they were switched on. It does not include the contents of messages or telephone calls.
Nonetheless this information is still highly sensitive. The Home Office has promised extra scrutiny of public authorities through "third party prior approval" of certain requests will be applied to further regulate access to this information.
Home Office Minister Caroline Flint said: "These proposals are about vital investigatory tools being used now to prevent and detect crime and, in some cases, save lives."
"We are absolutely committed to safeguarding individual privacy and that is why the Home Secretary promised last summer to rethink the proposals. We have consulted widely and listened carefully," she added.
Flint said the the order she had tabled before Parliament "strikes the right balance between the privacy of the citizen and the need to investigate crime and protect the public".
"We have dramatically cut down the number of organisations who will be allowed access to all communications data and significantly tightened up the procedures for access to data by all organisations. The result is a framework that addresses the legitimate concerns of the public over issues of privacy while at the same time recognising the importance of access to communications data in terms of public protection and the investigation of crime," she added.
The FIPR's Brown said that people should understand that, however the government presents it, the regulations give council and other officials new powers. These powers - though sometimes needed - ought to be closely scrutinised, he added.
Although critical of many aspects of RIPA, Brown noted that at least the Act tried to put access to communications data withing the framework of a Human Right regime. ®