Page last updated at 13:57 GMT, Monday, 9 November 2009

UK surveillance plan to go ahead

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Social networks: Data recorded - but not content

The Home Office says it will push ahead with plans to ask communications firms to monitor all internet use.

Ministers confirmed their intention despite concerns and opposition from some in the industry.

The proposals include asking firms to retain information on how people use social networks such as Facebook.

Some 40% of respondents to the Home Office's consultation opposed the plans - but ministers say communication interception needs to be updated.

Both the police and secret security services have legal powers in the UK to intercept communications in the interests of combating crime or threats to national security.

But the rules largely focus on communications over telephones and do not cover the whole range of internet communications now being used.

The Home Office says it wants to change the law to compel communication service providers (CSPs) to collect and retain records of communications from a wider range of internet sources, from social networks through to chatrooms and unorthodox methods, such as within online games.

Ministers say that they do not want to create a single government-owned database and only intend to ask CSPs to hold a record of a contact, rather than the actual contents of what was said.

Technically challenging

Police and other agencies would then be able to ask CSPs for information on when a communication was sent and between whom.

More communication via computers rather than phones
Companies won't always keep all data all the time
Anonymity online masks criminal identities
More online services provided from abroad
Data held in many locations and difficult to find
Source: Home Office consultation

In theory, law enforcement agencies will be able to link that information to specific devices such as an individual's smartphone or laptop.

The proposals are technically challenging, as they would require a CSP to sort and organise all third-party traffic coming and going through their systems. The estimated £2bn bill for the project includes compensation for the companies involved.

Home Office minister David Hanson said: "Communications data is crucial to the fight against crime and in keeping people safe. It is a highly technical area and one which demands a fine balance between privacy and maintaining the capabilities of the police and security services.

"The consultation showed widespread recognition of the importance of communications data in protecting the public and an appreciation of the challenges which rapidly changing technology poses.

"We will now work with communications service providers and others to develop these proposals, and aim to introduce necessary legislation as soon as possible."

Opposition and concern

The consultation results reveal that 90 of the 221 responses opposed the basic principles that the government should be seeking a method to retain or look at the data.

The Home Office said that there was a "widespread but not unanimous" recognition of the role of data in protecting the public. But many concerns related to the detail of what would be done with the information.

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner responsible for overseeing the protection of private information, told the Home Office that while he recognised that the police needed to use communication data to stop crime, this in itself was not a justification to collect all possible data passing through the internet.

"The proposal represents a step change in the relationship between the citizen and the state," said Mr Graham.

"For the first time, this proposal is asking CSPs to collect and create information they would not have previously held and to go further in conducting additional processing on that information.

"Evidence for this proposal must be available to demonstrate that such a step change is necessary and proportionate."

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