The Home Secretary has today warned that the government will legislate to collect more data on internet communications because it believes it will help fight serious crime and terrorism.
Jacqui Smith trailed the forthcoming Commmunications Data Bill in a speech this morning to the Institute for Public Policy Research. MI6 and GCHQ have pushed hard for the Bill to mandate a huge central database to retain details of who contacted whom online, where and when.
Currently the major telcos have arrangements in place to provide intelligence and law enforcement with call data on request. It's been argued at Whitehall that the rise of IP-based communications services such as VoIP, chat, email and the web are eroding authorities' ability to monitor and investigate crime. New laws are needed to "maintain capability", hawks insist.
"That is not a government policy that is somehow optional. It is a reality to which the government must respond," Smith said tody, referring to the growth of internet services.
She stopped short of directly referencing the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) however, as our report in late September indicated. IMP is the proposed solution to the alleged security problem caused by internet communications. The proposed giant storage silo would reportedly cost £12bn*.
Smith played down the civil liberties concerns being raised of the moves. "There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online", she said (our emphasis). "Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation."
Yet the concerns remain. Lord Carlile, the Liberal Democrat peer and top barrister who serves as the government's independent scrutineer of counter-terror legislation, has warned today that any access to a central database must be strictly controlled. He told El Reg: "The current system [for intelligence and law enforcement to obtain communications data] really is haphazard and unsatisfactory, but the raw idea [of a central database] is dreadful. The devil will be in the detail."
Reg sources have suggested that spy chiefs are keen on the idea of a central database's potential power for cross referencing data and profiling. Lord Carlile said that such "fishing expeditions" must not be allowed and that access to any central silo should be on a case-by-case basis.
Other people familiar with the plans have insisted that any pooling of data is unneccessary and too big a threat to civil liberties. In her speech, Jacqui Smith noted that since 2004 communications data has been used "as important evidence in 95 per cent of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations".
Such a statistic raises the question of why more powers are needed. The Home Office said it would get back to us on that.
Smith said a consultation on the Communications Data Bill will begin in the new year. "I am clear that we need to consult widely with the public and all interested parties to set out the emerging problem, the important capability gaps that we need to address and to look at the possible solutions... my aim is to achieve a consensus," she said.
Nevertheless, as we reported in mid-August, the Interception Modernisation programme has already been allocated almost £1bn. ®
*The EU Data Retention Directive, which separately requires ISPs to retain communications data themselves, is also set to become law next year. More here.