New Scientist | The UK government is considering a massive database to store every person’s emails, phone calls, text messages and internet use. The plan was suggested as a tool to help security forces tackling crime and terrorism.
At the moment, records of phone calls and text messages are kept for up to 12 months by telecoms companies, in compliance with a European Union anti-terrorism directive.
But a new proposal by the UK Home Office would see internet service providers (ISPs) and telecoms companies handing over records containing billions of emails as well as Internet usage and voice-over-Internet calls, media reports said on Tuesday.
Police and security services would only be granted access to the information after seeking permission from the courts. The UK was this year labelled an “endemic surveillance society” by a study of privacy protections worldwide.
The Home Office said the database could help catch up with rapid changes in communication methods during the past 15 years.
“The changes to the way we communicate, due particularly to the internet revolution, will increasingly undermine our current capabilities to obtain communications data and use it to protect the public,” it said in a statement.
“To ensure that our public authorities and law enforcement agencies can continue to use this valuable tool, the government is planning to bring forward the Communications Data Bill.” The draft bill is expected to be released later in the year, but the plan has yet to be discussed by ministers.
Phone calls would not be recorded in full, but the phone numbers involved and the duration of each call would be logged.
In 2006, the US National Security Agency was found to be secretly keeping billions of such records. Experts say such records can reveal detailed information about callers’ lives, but that such analysis is unproven as a way to reliably track and catch criminals.
Critics of the new plan have raised concerns about privacy. Jonathan Bamford, Assistant Information Commissioner at the UK government’s regulatory office for data storage, use and privacy said: “We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen’s phone and internet records. We have warned before that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society.”
Opponents also pointed to the UK government’s recent track record on large databases. A health service database that is the world’s biggest civil IT project has incurred large budget overruns and delays, while a recent security breach saw the whole nation’s child benefit records lost in the post.