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Last Updated: Friday, 16 May, 2003, 16:51 GMT 17:51 UK
Extent of UK snooping revealed
BT telephone bill
Requests for data include phone bill details
Officials in the UK are routinely demanding huge quantities of information about what people do online and who they call, say privacy experts.

Police and other officials are making around a million requests for access to data held by net and telephone companies each year, according to figures compiled from the government, legal experts and the internet industry.

The findings were announced at a public debate into government proposals to widen powers for internet snooping held in London this week.

But a Home Office spokesman disputed the figures, telling BBC News Online it estimated that the number of requests were half that suggested.

The requests include telephone billing data, e-mail logs and customer details, which privacy experts estimate could amount to a billion individual items of data, ranging from credit card numbers to numbers dialled.

Controversial Act

Custom & Excise: 18,940 requests Jan-Mar 2000
Metropolitan Police: 127,000 requests 2001
Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency: 54,000 requests per year
Financial Services Authority: 100 requests per year
DTI Companies Investigation Branch: 200 requests per year
Radio Communications Agency: 400 requests per year
Source: Foundation for Information Policy Research
The police are not the only ones demanding data for criminal investigations.

Government departments such as Custom and Excise, the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency and the Financial Services Authority are also routinely requesting information on internet and mobile phone customers.

Despite the number of requests already made for communication data, the government is keen to extend the number of public authorities that have access to such information.

It has brought all the legislation that allows access to data together under the umbrella of the Regulatory of Investigatory Powers Act.

The controversial act has been passed through parliament. But much of it is yet to be implemented and the Home Office is in the process of consulting industry on some of the stickier issues.

Police friendly

The net industry and the government cannot agree on issues such as how long companies should be forced to retain data, with suggestions ranging from six months to seven years.

Running parallel to this is the issue of how much the plans for snooping will cost internet firms.

The government has been reluctant to put a figure on it but Home Office representative Simon Watkin said that figures suggesting that ISPs would be massively out of pocket have been exaggerated.

"It will cost fractions of pennies per user session to retain data," he added.

And a Home Office spokesman, responding to the release of the figures said it had recently made new proposals to reverse the amount of data which public bodies can request and to lay it open to more scrutiny.

"Our proposals defend the privacy of the citizen whilst ensuring crimes are investigated and the law of the land is upheld," said a Home Office statement.

Internet experts have questioned just how easy the process of storing data would be.

"There is an assumption that all data is logged but masses of it flies past and no-one grabs hold of it," said Roland Perry of the London Internet Exchange, the crossing point for most of the UK's net data.

Storing of data must be in accordance to service provider's business needs he added.

"Being friendly to police is not a good enough business purpose," he said.

Keeping public informed

"It will need courts to buy into the argument that today's world is sufficiently different to that of 30 years ago and for judges to become advocates in a new future of privacy law
Dan Cooper, lawyer
For customers who may unwittingly end up on police databases, cost is not the issue said the debate organiser Simon Davies, head of the lobby group, Privacy International.

"It is not a cost issue as far as the consumer is concerned. The Home Office is saying it has the legal right to retain and access data and that has no basis in law," he said.

"The government can't just say we have the intent to prevent crime so therefore we can do more or less what we like," he added.

Lawyers who spoke at the debate said that the government's claim on retaining data contradicted the European Human Rights Act which states that there must be a good reason to interfere with personal data.

"It will be eminently challengeable under current jurisprudence and will require fundamental changes in the way judges look at the law," said Dan Cooper, lawyer with law firm Covington & Burling.

Judges were unlikely to be happy in this new role, he said.

"It will need courts to buy into the argument that today's world is sufficiently different to that of 30 years ago and for judges to become advocates in a new future of privacy law," he said.

One audience member asked the Home Office if it was prepared to inform customers every time a piece of their data had been accessed.

"We don't think people would want to know every time their data had been accessed. In some cases it could be because of a 10 second wrong number," said Mr Watkin.

The overwhelming majority of the audience indicated that they would wish to be informed and Mr Watkin conceded that the government would consider the idea as part of its consultation.

Privacy International has launched a 'Know Your Data' campaign which calls on UK consumers to demand access to the records held on them by phone and internet firms.

Cautious response to 'snoop' plans
11 Mar 03  |  Technology
Revised 'snoop' plans outlined
11 Mar 03  |  Politics
UK stands firm on snooping laws
30 Jan 03  |  Technology
MPs urge changes to net snooping laws
28 Jan 03  |  Technology
Rethink urged over net snooping laws
19 Dec 02  |  Technology

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