Home Office rules out telephone surveillance database

By Ian Dunt

Home Office plans to keep records of all telephone calls and internet site visits in the UK will not involve a centralised database, the home secretary has confirmed.

Instead, telecom and internet service providers will be forced to keep records for government use.

“It is essential that the police and other crime fighting agencies have the tools they need to do their job,” Jacqui Smith said today.

“However, to be clear, there are absolutely no plans for a single central store.”

Opposition parties welcomed the decision to drop the database idea, but voiced concerns about what service providers would be asked to do.

“The big problem is that the government has built a culture of surveillance which goes far beyond counter terrorism and serious crime,” said shadow home secretary Chris Grayling.

“Too many parts of government have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that’s really got to change.

“Now that she has finally admitted that the public don’t want their details held by the State in one place, perhaps she will look at other areas in which the Government is trying to do precisely that.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: “Any legislation that requires individual communications providers to keep data on who called whom and when will need strong safeguards on access.

“It is simply not that easy to separate the bare details of a call from its content. What if a leading business person is ringing Alcoholics Anonymous, or a politician’s partner is arranging to hire a porn video?”

Originally put into the data communications bill, the powers now appear to be entirely divorced from the legislation – announced in the Queen’s Speech – and are found in the Interception Modernisation Programme.

‘Protecting the public in a changing communications environment’, a government document setting out the changes, is put out for consultation today.

Ms Smith has assured civil liberties campaigners that only the log of communications – when and between whom they took place – will be retained, rather than the content of the messages themselves.

But that has done little to water down the outrage felt by activists at the plans, whose consultation has already been delayed while the Home Office established the extent of opposition.

“It is a hallmark of free societies that whilst the police target criminal suspects, government does not monitor the entire population,” said Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti.

Former director of public prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald said: “This database would be an unimaginable hell house of personal private information. It would be a complete read-out of every citizen’s life in the most intimate and demeaning detail.”

Government officials say the plans are merely an update of pre-exiting European directives on surveillance to make them relevant to technological advances, but analysts argue it was the British government which pushed for changes at the European level.

Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO2ID said: “Officials from dozens of departments and quangos could know what you read online, and who all your friends are, who you emailed, when, and where you were when you did so – all without a warrant.

“Tracking your your every move is more efficiently creepy than reading your letters.”

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have voiced their opposition to the idea.