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Wednesday, 26 June, 2002, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK
Tech industry questions snooping figures
Pair of binoculars, Eyewire
Claims that hundreds of organisations are carrying out widespread snooping on British citizens have been contested by technology experts and industry groups.

Last week while defending now abandoned plans to give more than 500 organisations the power to find out about the electronic lives of citizens, the government claimed that the snooping was already going on and its proposals meant it would be better policed.

But experts said they got few requests to reveal customers' identity from organisations unconnected with law enforcement, and that the vast majority of the police requests were for basic subscriber information.

They added that the government's proposed changes would make it much easier to request information, would provide much more detailed data and could substantially increase how much is provided.

Seeking subscribers

Although the plan to extend snooping powers has been shelved, some fear it could return.

Currently anyone keen to find out who owns a mobile phone number or who sent an e-mail or fax can request the information under terms laid out in the 1998 Data Protection Act.

The government is handing out powers with no oversight of people doing what they claim

Richard Clayton, Foundation for Information Policy Research
The company possessing this basic data, called subscriber information, must only supply it if it believes that an investigation would be unable to proceed without it.

"The vast majority of enquiries say 'here is this website, with someone doing something dodgy on it, can we have the subscriber information and go round and interview them?'" said Roland Perry, director of public policy at the London Internet Exchange.

"The vast majority of requests are from the police, with a handful from trading standards and that's about it," said Richard Clayton, treasurer of the Foundation for Information Policy Research who has long experience of the net industry.

A spokesman for the Local Government Ombudsman said it had never investigated a complaint about a local authority gathering subscriber information, which he said suggested it was not a widespread practice.

Mr Perry said because more people have phones than net links, phone firms are likely to get far more requests for this information.

A spokesman for Oftel said it did not collate figures on requests for subscriber information but said some firms might keep count.

A BT spokesman said it never commented on security matters and a spokeswoman for Intellect, which represents the mobile industry, said it would be up to individual operators to keep a tally.

Number crunch

The government's own figures suggest that law enforcement agencies make the most requests for information about subscribers.

In June 2000 Lord Bassam revealed in Parliament that during the first three months of that year over 98% of the 18,940 requests for information made by HM Customs and Excise were for basic subscriber information.

The police are believed to make a similar number of requests, up to 60,000, per year.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said that it had anecdotal reports from its agencies and departments about the number of times they had requested subscriber information from communications companies.

Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth
Mr Ainsworth said snooping was already widespread
She said that in 2001 the Postal Services made 4 requests, the Department of Health 41 requests, Northern Ireland and Scotland health services made 12 requests and the Financial Services Authority made 1 request.

Mr Clayton said that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act changed who made the decision about whether the information was needed and altered the type of information that could be requested.

When the RIP Act regime on the disclosure of information comes into force, those holding information about subscribers lose the right to judge if it should be passed on.

Instead the responsibility shifts to the person making the request.

The RIP Act also makes it possible for police forces and other agencies to request more detailed information about the phone numbers someone is calling, the people they correspond with via e-mail, who they send faxes to and the websites they look at.

Unfortunately, said Mr Clayton, the body responsible for overseeing the passing of this information, called the Interception Commissioner, is unlikely to be able to cope with the number of requests.

Mr Clayton said that the commissioner will regularly have to visit up to 8,000 different places to do its job.

The Cabinet Intelligence and Security Committee has revealed that until recently the Interception Commissioner did not even have enough staff to open its post, said Mr Clayton.

"The government is handing out powers with no oversight of people doing what they claim," he said.

See also:

11 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
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