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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK
Government 'snoop law' stance slammed
filing cabinet
European law enforcers want to keep extensive files of electronic communications
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

The UK Government has been accused of deceiving the public over proposals to keep long term records of electronic communications.

An internet think tank claims the Government is guilty of "duplicity" by lobbying for the law change in Europe, yet denying it was seeking such sweeping powers in public statements.

It follows revelations by the monitoring organisation Statewatch that the European Union (EU) is proposing to create data warehouses that would store records of almost every electronic message sent by citizens.

A spokesman for the Home Office said it could not comment on leaked documents.

Ripping up the law

On 28 May the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU will debate radical proposals to rewrite EU-wide laws on data protection and telecommunications.


This is sheer duplicity

Caspar Bowden
Law enforcement agencies and governments of some EU members have submitted proposals that call for net service providers, mobile phone firms and telecommunications companies to keep records of all the traffic that passes over their networks for seven years. In EU circles, records of who is communicating with whom and by which medium are known as "traffic data".

Those proposing the changes say the rising tide of cybercrime means they need this information.

On Wednesday, the Statewatch monitoring group revealed the existence of the plans by publishing documents passed to it by EU insiders. Previously the EU had denied Statewatch access to the documents saying that giving access would delay debate on the proposals.

Currently six governments - the UK, Belgium, Germany, France, Netherlands, and Spain - are known to be leading the call to change data protection laws and force communications firms to store the traffic data.

Denials

Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research internet thinktank, said the support the UK was giving to the proposals in private stood in stark contrast to public pronouncements of at least one government minister.

Patricia Hewitt
The government has been accused of "duplicity" over the new EU laws
Mr Bowden said that on three separate occasions e-minister Patricia Hewitt had denied the government was looking to extend surveillance powers beyond those contained in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

"The government has repeatedly denied supporting these quasi-totalitarian measures but it turns out they have been secretly lobbying at European level all along," said Mr Bowden. "This is sheer duplicity."

A spokesman for the Home Office said it could not comment on leaked documents.

He said there was no contradiction because the government still had no plans to introduce such legislation in the UK in the near future.

He declined to speculate on whether new laws would result if the EU changed its data protection laws in line with the proposals.

Condemnation

Data protection commissioners have already condemned the new proposals as un-necessary and an invasion of privacy. Statements criticising the proposals have been passed at their last two annual conferences. The most recent conference finished barely a week ago.

Francis Aldhouse, Britain's deputy data protection commissioner, said although cybercrime was a problem, it remained to be proved that capturing all traffic data was a reasonable response.

He said in the past laws that allow law enforcement agencies to eavesdrop electronically or intrude on privacy had been proportionate to the problem they were helping to tackle.

"Automatic retention of all this data for long periods of time is just not proportionate," said Mr Aldhouse.

"The collective view is that retention of traffic data beyond the period necessary for billing would be an invasion of the right to privacy of communication assured by Article 8 of the convention on human rights," he said.

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See also:

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