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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
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2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005


British government considers database of phone calls, web site visits and emails.

Summary: The proposed central database logging details of who people phone, who they email and what websites they visit, at first glance, merely duplicates the storage of such information by internet and phone companies. However, by creating their own central database, the government will make it easier to look up any British resident’s calls and emails, easier to extend the retention of this data and easier to share the data across government departments and public bodies in the future. It will also create a valuable target for information thieves. All this assumes, of course, that they can manage to get such a large-scale IT project off the ground in the first place…

In the aftermath of 9/11, the British government proposed that communications data, i.e. details of who you phone, who you email and what websites you visit, should be retained by phone and internet companies for 2 years to allow the authorities to access them when investigating crime (this data does not include the content of the communications, merely the details of who is communicating and how long the communications last).

The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 contained provisions enabling a voluntary code to be operated, which also allowed the government to move to compulsion. The latter option was never invoked.

However, in the meantime, the government also pushed for the retention of communications data to be adopted at EU level, the end result being that the EU adopted its own Data Retention Directive. This directive requires that the service providers store the communications data for a minimum of 6 months and a maximum of 2 years in every member state. For the first 18 months however, only phone calls have been logged.

The British government have now proposed a Communications Bill (to be introduced in the next parliamentary session) which will complete Britain’s implementation of this directive. But in an addition to what’s gone before, it appears that they are considering creating a central database of all these records, in addition to the records store by the phone and internet companies.

The creation of this central database may at first site seem to be mere duplication to facilitate the government’s ability to search these records. Indeed, according to the reports, the government claims that access to the data will require the same procedure as it currently does.

However by creating the central database, the government will ensure that they only need to go to one place to get all the communications data about any person using internet or phone services in Britain, where without the database they might have to make multiple requests to several different phone companies and/or ISPs. Thus the practical barriers against both using and abusing this data will be lowered. Furthermore, the database will constitute a gold mine for identity thieves who would otherwise have to target several systems in different organisations to get hold of the data. Instead they would need only to compromise one system.

Also, one the sources of resistance to data retention was the costs it would impose on internet and phone companies in storing the data. However if the government stores its own copy of the data, it can retain it (perhaps unofficially) for however long it wishes without loading further costs onto the ISPs (beyond those require to store the data and transmit it to the central database).

Of course it would be a massive IT project to implement such a thing, and one may doubt the government’s ability to do it, given their less than stellar record in such matters. But the example of the national identity scheme shows this government can be quite persistent at pursuing crazy, intrusive IT schemes…

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