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Britain’s “Snoopers” database delayed

Posted by James Hammerton @ 5:37 pm on 24 November, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Recently, a headline in The Independent inaccurately claimed that the database storing the communications data related to every website visit, download, email, phone call and text message sent within Britain has been shelved. In fact, as the article itself makes clear, it has merely been postponed:

The timetable for setting up a giant “Big Brother” database is slipping after the scheme was dropped from next month’s Queen’s Speech. The Independent has highlighted growing fury over government moves to collate details of every telephone call, email and internet visit.

Whitehall sources confirmed last night that the plans would not be included in the Queen’s Speech on 3 December, in which the Government outlines its legislative programme for the next parliamentary year. Insisting they were committed to the scheme as a tool in the fight against crime and terrorism, they said a consultation paper early next year would set out options for collecting the information.

But there is no firm indication when the new Communications Data Bill will be published, raising the prospect of it being delayed until after the next general election expected in 2010.

Admittedly, if it is delayed beyond the next election that might kill it off should Labour lose and the new government are determined to end the ongoing attacks on privacy and civil liberties. However it is clear the government is still planning to introduce such a scheme, and it could be in place by 2012, as this recent Register article explains:

The government Interception Modernisation Programme (gIMP), a plan by spy chiefs to centrally collect details of every phone call, text, email and web browsing session of every UK resident, could be in place by 2012, according to a Home Office minister.

Lord West told the House of Lords yesterday the government is aiming to have the enormous database of communications and “black box” interception hardware in place around the same time as BT completes its 21CN transition to an all-internet protocol network.

“Exactly how quickly that [BT’s new backbone] will come in is difficult to predict, but it will be complete by about 2011-12. That is the sort of timescale we are looking at,” he said. Advocates of the system say the completion of 21CN will seriously impinged on the ability of law enforcement to track serious crime.

Last month home secretary Jacqui Smith said the Communications Data Bill, which is planned to legislate for the gIMP, would be delayed a second time and not appear in the Queen’s Speech in early December. Instead, she said, a consultation will be opened in January with the aim of achieving consensus on GCHQ’s communications data harvesting ambitions.

Independent Register sources in politics, the civil service and industry have all said that the gIMP is proceeding anyway with initial funding of almost £1bn. It’s been reported that government estimates say the final cost of collecting and storing information about every electronic communication will be £12bn. Lord West said no decisions have been taken “on which way to go”.

The gIMP won’t record the content of communications, but the central database will be linked to wiretap hardware. The two parts of the system will together allow government eavesdroppers to easily dial into the content of any IP stream of interest.

Still the delay does allow those opposed the scheme more time to build up a campaign against it, and leaves it open to the vagaries of the electoral cycle, so the odds of killing the scheme off have improved as a result.

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