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Jacqui Smith on the Snooper’s Database

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:59 pm on 19 October, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith recently gave a speech to the IPPR, where she made (admittedly indirect) reference to the plans to record all communications data, i.e. data about who you phone, who you email, which websites you download material from, but not the content of such transactions, in a central database.

I shall focus here solely on the part of the speech dealing with communications data:

Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime, including child sex abuse, murder and drugs trafficking. Communications Data – that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves – is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004.

But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted. [For example, in the Soham murders and 21/7 convictions.]

All this is a reflection of the technological and behavioural changes that the growth of the internet brings. Once again, that is not a Government policy which is somehow optional. It is a reality to which Government needs to respond.

The changes we need to make may require legislation. The safeguards we will want to put in place certainly will. And we may need legislation to test what a solution will look like.

So far, one needs to be remember several things at this stage and consider these comments in context:

  • Phone and internet companies already record communications data, that is data about the origin, location, destination and length of phone calls, emails, text messages, downloads and website visits. The government can demand this data, and has granted the power to demand the data not only to the police and security services but to local councils, government departments and numerous government bodies. In most cases, they can demand this data without a warrant.
  • The government has pushed, at EU level, for phone and internet companies to be required to store this data for at least a year.
  • The EU data retention directive already requires phone companies to store the data related to phone calls for at least a year, and will soon require internet companies to store the data related to emails, downloads and website visits too.
  • The government is proposing (though this is not directly mentioned in the speech), to store all this data in one central database for its own purposes.

It seems to me that the government and security agencies can keep on top of the terrorist threat quite adequately as it stands now with the current arrangements. Moreover it is still a targetted approach in that they have to ask for the data related to those they suspect of being up to no good, whereas if a central database is created, then they have the data relating to everyone.

This changes the nature of what is going on and thus becomes mass indiscriminate surveillance. It also enables the data to be stored for whatever length of time the government chooses, using tax payer’s money to bear the costs of doing so, where extending the length of time for such data retention by the phone and internet providers would impose a burden on those businesses. It gives the government a lot more freedom of action over exactly how much data is retained for how long and over how it will be used.

I do not trust this or future governments to refrain from using such data for fishing expeditions or worse. I do not trust this or future governments to secure this data against being stolen by foreign spy agencies, organised crime, terrorists or corrupt government officials. The database will be a honeypot for such organisations wishing to subvert the institutions of the state, including institutions such as GCHQ, MI5 or MI6. For some reason, Jacqui failed to mention these risks.

But before proceeding to legislation, 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. We also need to agree what safeguards will be needed, in addition to the many we have in place already, to provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties.

This consultation will begin in the New Year and I want this to be combined with a well-informed debate characterised by openness, rather than mere opinion, by reason and reasonableness. In this, as in the other work we do, my aim is to achieve a consensus and I hope that others will approach the serious issues posed for our national security capabilities in the same spirit.

If this government genuinely approaches this in a spirit of openness and reasonableness, it’ll be a first. They have lied and obfsucated repeatedly over issues such as identity cards and pre-charge detention, it’ll mark a considerable change of habit to do otherwise now…

So let me set the terms for that open and reasoned debate now, and be clear on what we are not going to do.

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. 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. (emphasis added)

And here we have the classic, “attack a straw man” tactic designed to distract attention from what they are planning to do. I’m not aware that anyone has claimed the government want to store a database of the content of all phone calls, emails, etc. The media coverage I’ve seen has been clear that the database would store only the communications data, not the content of the communications themselves.

And note the promise being made with regards to local authorities. Smith is saying that they will not be allowed to trawl a database of the content of your communications.

She is not saying that they won’t be allowed to trawl a database that records who it is you are communicating with.

Local authorities do not have the power to listen to your calls now and they never will in future. You would rightly object to proposals of this kind and I would not consider them. What we will be proposing will be options which follow the key principles which govern all our work in this area – the principles of proportionality and necessity.

So she reiterates that the government won’t do something nobody is claiming they are doing anyway.

And that’s all she’s said on the matter in this speech.

Thus she has in fact dodged the issue.

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