Licence to snoop

(Filed: 12/03/2003)

Last summer, under pressure from, among others, The Daily Telegraph, the Government withdrew plans to extend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The Act has always been controversial. When the Home Office proposed extending it so that a huge range of government agencies and other public bodies, including local authorities, would be able to monitor our internet, email and telephone records with virtually no judicial control, all hell broke loose.

It was, by any standards, an outrageous plan and there was general relief when the Government conceded that it would have to be reconsidered. Or at least there was until yesterday, when the Home Office produced the results of its rethink and it turned out that version two differs very little from the original.

In essence, the same range of bodies as before will be able to get access to virtually the same range of records as before. The only difference of any significance is that before an agency or authority can find out whom we have been talking to or e-mailing, it will have to be approved by a gentleman with the Orwellian title of the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

Even the commissioner's role, however, will not be all it is cracked up to be. Once an agency or local authority has been certified by him, it will essentially be up to them to decide, within certain parameters, when to use their new power.

Nor, given the detail contained in modern phone and e-mail records, is it particularly reassuring that official snoopers will not have access to the contents of any particular communication without a proper judicial warrant.

Weakest of all is the Government's claim that all this is needed to fight crime. Those principally involved in fighting crime - the police, the Customs, the security services and even the Inland Revenue - already have these powers anyway. The only good thing about yesterday's paper is that it is, at least, consultative.

Those who opposed these plans first time round should prepare to fight them all over again. They are still a snoopers' charter.

Wide powers for state bodies in new 'snoopers' charter'

By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor
(Filed: 12/03/2003)

More than 24 state agencies and hundreds of local government officials will be given powers to demand the personal details of citizens under a revamped "snooper's charter" published yesterday.

However, the Government said additional safeguards to prevent unwarranted intrusions would address the public concerns that forced ministers to withdraw an earlier version of the charter.

There was an outcry last summer when the Government sought to extend the powers of quangos and other organisations to gain access to communications data. Civil liberties groups denounced the measure as an invasion of privacy and it was withdrawn.

In its revised form, the same public bodies - ranging from the Environment Agency and the Information Commission to the Gaming Board and Food Standards Agency - will be able to demand the personal details of phone calls and emails.

Other organisations include NHS trusts, the Financial Services Authority, the Royal Mail and more than 450 local authorities.

Their access to the information will be granted only if a judicial third party, such as the Interception of Communications Commissioner, considers that it is needed to investigate crimes.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the police, MI5, Customs and the Inland Revenue can already obtain such information. Given the expansion of email and mobile phone technology, the Government now wants other bodies to gain similar powers.

Automatic access will be given to the ambulance service, fire authorities, HM Coastguard, the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency and the UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary.

About 20 other agencies will be able to seek the same information but will be covered by more stringent controls. Agencies would first need to obtain clearance by the Interceptions Commissioner to carry out such inquiries. For individual checks, permission would then need to be granted by designated senior officials.

The Government says the agencies need the data to enforce the law and not merely to pry into people's lives. They will not see the contents of communications - something that requires a warrant - but they will be able to insist that internet service providers, telephone companies and postal operators hand over the information.

This can include names and addresses of customers, their service use records, details of who has called whom, mobile phone locations accurate to within 100 yards and the sources and destinations of e-mails. It can also involve call waiting or call barring information, itemised call records and subscriber details.

Despite the new safeguards, such information would be sufficient for a ministry or other public sector organisation to track and stop attempts by campaigners, journalists or members of the public to uncover information.

However, Bob Ainsworth, the Home Office minister, said the powers would be used only in the detection of criminal activity, such as fraudulent trading or selling unfit food.

He said the Government agencies involved all had some law enforcement powers in such fields as health and safety, anti-pollution or fraud.

"In a democratic society there is always a difficult balance to strike between respect for privacy and ensuring crime is tackled effectively," he said.

"These proposals defend the privacy of the citizen while ensuring crimes are investigated and the law of the land upheld."

Mr Ainsworth said the new charter was a consultation document and if anyone strongly objected to a particular organisation having such powers they could make their opinion known.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, said that the new proposals were an improvement on the first draft but that the only true and independent safeguard for the citizen was a warrant from a judge.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: "They have tinkered at the edges and made a few cosmetic changes but there is nothing substantially different from what was on offer before. It is still a snooper's charter."