The UK government has given communications providers almost £19m in the last four years under anti-terror laws to pay for access to huge compulsory databases of customer information.
The annual level of grants under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (ATCSA) and the EU Data Retention Directive 2007 (EUDRD) has rocketed from £84,582 in 2004 to £8,346,495 in 2007.
In the first six months of this year more than £4m has already been paid out to cover the costs of retaining and serving data detailing customer calls and internet use.
The figures were revealed by the Home Office in response to a Parliamentary question by David Carnegie, the Earl of Northesk. They show a total of 26 payments since 2004 (the ATCSA code of practice was approved by Parliament in 2003). As well as witnessing the greatest cash total, 2007 saw the highest frequency of data retention handouts with 10 grants made. This year is on target to match that level with five grants made by the end of June.
It's unknown which companies have received the money. Cambridge University security researcher Richard Clayton said: "It would be reasonable to guess that most of that money was spent on telcos [rather than ISPs]."
Under the regulations telephone providers store details of who their customers have called - and when and for how long - for a year. Major phone operators routinely store such data for billing and marketing purposes.
The government spending is therefore unlikely to have been spent on storage hardware. Sources familiar with the government's data retention initiatives say it's more likely that most of the grants over the past four years have been given to the big fixed line and mobile operators implementing systems to make it easier for authorities to access their communications data.
The Home Office told The Register: "We initially started out working with smaller companies, but increasingly are working with bigger organisations with a view to the first part of the EUDRD coming into effect in October 2007. We have continued that process with a view to the final transposition of the EUDRD in March 2009."
Official demands for call and internet usage data retained under ATCSA or EUDRD are mandated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). A separate grant-making power under that Act pays providers to offer wiretap access to the actual call or IP stream contents to law enforcement officers who have obtained a warrant.
According to the Parliamentary answer offered by Home Office minister Lord West, many grants that would have been made under ATCSA, which was pushed through Parliament in the wake of 9/11, are now paid under EUDRD.
The EUDRD is aimed at harmonising data retention across the bloc. It also supplants ATCSA's code of practice by making retention compulsory and bringing ISPs into line with telephone providers.
The Directive requires governments to implement its rules in legislation by March 2009. Telephone providers are already covered by EUDRD compliance laws that came into force in October last year. In May this year, Gordon Brown trailed the new Communications Data Bill, which is being drafted to bring the UK into compliance with all of the EUDRD, including its internet traffic provisions.
Alongside news of the draft bill, the government floated plans for a giant central database to pool all communications data. The idea sparked an outcry from privacy and civil liberties campaigners. Such a system would also supercede compliance systems currently in place at telcos and ISPs, and could render much of the government's £19m investment redundant. ®
The Hansard entry for the question does not include the figures the Earl of Northesk requested, which we understand was the result of an administrative cock-up. Here's the full rundown:
|Financial year||Grant payments||ATCSA||EUDRD|
* Year to 1 July
Figures in the last two columns are pounds sterling.