Warning over need for safeguards in email and web monitoring plan


Senior Conservative backbencher David Davis criticised the plans

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The Information Commissioner has warned that strict safeguards must be put in place if plans to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK are implemented.

In an October 2010 report, Christopher Graham's office said the case for retaining such data had yet to be made.

If such a step was taken, they warned in a briefing paper obtained by Tory MP Dominic Raab, strict rules were needed.

The Home Office says the plan is key to tackling crime and terrorism.

Attempts by the last Labour government to create a giant central database containing all UK web and telephone use were dropped after huge opposition, including from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Instead internet service providers have had to keep details of users' web access, email and internet phone calls for 12 months under an EU directive from 2009.

Although the content of the calls themselves is not kept, the sender, recipient, time of communication and geographical location does have to be recorded.

The proposed new law - which may be announced in the Queen's Speech in May - would reportedly allow GCHQ to access that data in real time, on demand, rather than retrospectively.

'Not snooping'

Although it is not clear what exactly is being proposed, Downing Street insisted it would not include the content of communications.


Law and enforcement and intelligence agencies are the driving force behind these proposals as they want to ensure they can continue gather data they say is vital for investigations.

But there are unanswered questions.

For instance, is this simply updating existing powers or does it broaden and deepen them - for instance by including real-time monitoring?

There are also questions about access and accountability. At the moment, a very wide range of agencies have access to this data - from the Financial Services Authority looking for proof of insider trading through to local councils, organisations like the pensions regulator, NHS trusts, the Environment Agency and a plethora of government departments.

In 2010, a total of 552,550 requests were made for communications data. So will everyone also have access to the new system?

Also, while accessing the content of messages ("intercept") requires a warrant signed by the home secretary, getting hold of communications data can be authorised within an organisation itself - by a manager or officer of a certain grade.

Critics argue that this does not provide sufficient oversight and that there needs to be more independent scrutiny.

Crime Prevention Minister James Brokenshire told the BBC it was not "some great big government snooping exercise", but a change designed to allow police officers to continue to solve crime in an era when communications data - details of phone calls - was used in 95% of all serious crime and terrorism cases.

"We absolutely get the need for appropriate safeguards and for appropriate protections to be be put in place," he added.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he was "totally opposed to the idea of governments reading people's emails at will, or creating a new central government database".

"The point is we are not doing any of that and I wouldn't allow us to do any of that," he said.

"All we are doing is updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals, and updating that to apply to technology like Skype which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those emails."


The Information Commissioner's office briefing paper in October 2010 said: "There needs to be some recognition that this additional data will be a honeypot as it will reveal the browsing habits of celebrities, politicians, etc."

It suggested that a new offence, possibly attracting a custodial sentence, could be created to punish any wrongful disclosure.

Critics have warned that any new law could end up being used more widely than originally intended - similar to the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which has not just been used to tackle serious crime by police but also been used by local authorities to check on children's school catchment areas.

The Information Commissioner said public bodies not involved in dealing with serious crime or national security, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, should have to apply to a court before access was granted.

'Big Brother'

The plans have been criticised by civil liberties groups and several Conservative backbenchers.

Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, called the move "an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran".

"This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses," he said.

Dominic Raab MP, who made public the Information Commissioner's report, said it was "a plan to privatise Big Brother surveillance".

He said it "fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the state and the citizen", and turns every individual "into a suspect".

Fellow Tory David Davis warned that until now anyone wishing to monitor communications had been required to gain permission from a magistrate, but the planned changes would remove that protection.

He compared the idea with measures introduced by the Labour government - such as longer periods of pre-charge detention - which he said were justified at the time on security grounds but had proved to be damaging.

'Saving lives'

When Labour attempted to push for similar changes, the Conservative shadow home secretary at the time, Chris Grayling, said the government had "built a culture of surveillance which goes far beyond counter-terrorism and serious crime".

But Lord Carlile, the former official reviewer of terrorism legislation, said that "having come into government, the coalition parties have realised this kind of material has potential for saving lives, preventing serious crime and helping people to avoid becoming victims of serious crime".

He added: "Parliament will apply the most anxious scrutiny to any proposed legislation of this kind... what we have to protect the public from is arbitrary action by the government or any government authority."

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the police and security services had to be able to keep up with new technology, but there must be "clear checks and balances" on what they were able to do and "strong safeguards to protect people's privacy".

Even if the move is announced in the Queen's Speech, any new law would still have to make it through Parliament, potentially in the face of opposition in both the Commons and the Lords.

The Internet Service Providers Association said any change in the law must be "proportionate, respect freedom of expression and the privacy of users".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 578.

    Big Brother is watching and listening to you. Why dont they get us to inform on our neighbours? All this smacks of Nazism but like the Germans we undoubtedly will comply and bury our heads in the sand. Why also did the Tories oppose this elf same idea by Labour but are now willing to impliment it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 577.

    Who watches the watchers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 576.

    As I said yesterday, I've always wanted to visit Strasbourg ... seems I may require a season ticket. Y'all moan about the EU ... soon the only protection we have at all of our Human RIghts will be through Europe.

  • Comment number 575.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 574.

    What next? compulsary ID cards to be swiped with every computer sign in? This is once again a complete invasion of privacy, and I dont care if you have something to hide or not - I would not expect any old tom dick or harry to have carte blance of my house, so why should this be the same online.

  • rate this

    Comment number 573.

    Iran and China must be laughing loud and rolling off their chairs reading this.

    Ops, I get it now............. the reason why our good and very concerned government is doing this is to protect us against China and Iran using us to attack us and to protect us against attack from us.

    Cameron you are always one step ahead of us looking after us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 572.

    Have you noticed that the Ministry of Truth (BBC) put comments supporting this as their first and last Editor's Picks? Despite how unrepresentative they are, and massively disliked by the majority...

    Essentially the same technique as ending the article itself on a pro-point, attempting to sell this soviet-style surveillance to the masses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 571.

    Surely this is violation of our human rights. How is it fair to use the European Court of Human Rights to stop extradition of a known terrorist, and make taxpayers cover the cost of him and his 24 hour security, but the invasion of privacy of millions of completely innocent British citizens is up for grabs. Serious hypocrisy and double standards going on here don't you think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 570.

    For krokodil - my 542 continued.
    I obtained some documents by legal means, they were very revealling about my problems, and their cause, but even more revealling about criminal activities. "They" wanted them back and were not at all bothered how they went about trying to get them back.
    And, they all work for, and are paid by us, mostly to UPHOLD the laws of this land.

  • rate this

    Comment number 569.

    You can see the way all this is going, can't you? Artificially inflated house prices and benefit cuts are keeping the poor confined to particular areas, as they can't afford to move around: once they've got us all nicely sorted, packaged and boxed in, we're easier to control. Snooping on us is the inevitable next step. It's concentration camps with invisible fencing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 568.

    I genuinely thought that this was an April Fools joke, the main story being posted yesterday. Apparently it isn't.
    Do people not understand that even though the government can pretend to have the right to snoop in order to catch terrorists, it is ultimately our decision whether or not they can do it? This is just evidence of the global banking elite which controls all of our government. WAKE UP.

  • rate this

    Comment number 567.

    Imagine this: As an investigative journalist you've uncovered high level systemic corruption. You've gathered all the facts, sources and have written the piece to be printed in the following days paper.

    However, your boss (and others) receive a phone call highlighting an affair with that other person, your dubious banking transactions and internet habits.

    The story never goes to print!

  • rate this

    Comment number 566.

    I spy with my little eye ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 565.

    Strontiumdump, we don't all read 'gossip'. I'm a member of a private forum, originally formed for wildlife fans, but we talk about all sorts of things. What's next? We get looked into because we dared to criticise the government? We get a knock at the door because we've exchanged info about a police car carving us up? It seems that NOTHING is sacred anymore, not even our privacy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 564.

    havadram: If it prevents one atrocity in this country it's worth it,

    But so would a 24hour curfew, banning of matches, and numerous other infringements on our lifestyle.

    Terrorism is targetted at our lifestyles - let's make ourself "safe" by giving up our lifestyle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 563.

    how cant people see this is evil?

    the people saying "nothing to hide" are no doubt the same people who moaned at councils abusing anti terror laws for the tiniest of things, this will be abused,

    bad enough certain govt depts already sell our info, theyll have free reign to sell our lives now

  • rate this

    Comment number 562.

    It seems highly unlikely to me, that terrorists and revolutionaries are going t be able to do their thing without the internet. Looks like you got 'em there, Dave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 561.

    Am I the only one that wonders what the Government uses this part of the BBC website for? Are we being profiled right now? Marked to be kept an eye on in the future? Makes me think again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 560.

    In Sweden any member of the public can go into a government office and without giving their own identity obtain copies of all correspondence and emails to and from government ministers. If the government wants to snoop on us give us the power to snoop on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 559.

    Its a pointless waste of time which will not catch criminals or catch terrorists but will allow the gov to view all aspects of your personal life. We've already seen how these snooping methods can be defeated quite easily as was done in the Middle East during Arab Spring uprising to allow people to still communicate and that was a community effort without resources of organized crime or terrorists


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