UK Home Office steps back in the project to intercept communications

By EDRi · November 18, 2009

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Deutsch: [Britisches Innenministerium tritt vom Projekt zur Abhörung von Anschlüssen zurück |]

<--- Text clarified on 20.11.2009--->

The Home Office’s plan (known as the Interception Modernisation Programme)
to put under surveillance everyone’s email, mobile phone, text and Internet
communications has been put on hold, following the outcomes of a consultation
launched in April 2009.

At the beginning of the year, the Home Office had already given up its plans
to build a central database with all information on who communicates on
phone, email and Internet to whom, where, how and when. Instead, it planned
to ask ISPs and phone companies to store this data for policy and security
services access.

The 221 respondents to “Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications
Environment”, the consultation published by the Home Office that closed on
20 July, raised issues related to data protection but also to the costs
involved and the technical feasibility of the project.

During the period of consultation, a briefing on the Interception
Modernisation Programme issued by LSE Policy Engagement Network on 17 June,
pointed out some of the main concerns related to the project. “This would
lead to a tipping of the balance in favour of state power and away from
communications privacy rights for the individual. In fact, the current
policy environment already has incredibly weak privacy safeguards, and the
Home Office is going some way to worsening the situation rather than
improving it” said the briefing.

The report also emphasizes the high costs involved by such a programme due
to he large amounts of traffic associated with each Internet user and the
technology necessary to discard whatever appears to be “content”, to combine
different streams of traffic in order to obtain further information about an

The statement of the Government that the system will record only information
on communications and not the contents is not considered as argument if
favour of the programme. The document points out that “this is as least as
privacy intrusive as content interception.” The gathering of this
information will make possible to “create a comprehensive profile of an
individual’s interests, intentions, associates, usual locations, and the
nature of those interactions. (…) It is a map of everyone’s private life,
but also his or her professional and social life too.”

For the time being, the UK Government has put the programme on hold. “Any
legislation requiring 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? There has to be a
careful balance between investigative powers and the right to privacy,” said Liberal Democrats
home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne.

But the Home Office was still in the press’ eye with a series of stories
that were meant to explain the usefulness of the communication data. At
least one of the five tales was heavily criticized and interpereted as
distortion of an initial story. The Government claimed that the use of
traffic data was essential to find a man that was lost in an area with very
poor visibility on the Isle Of Lewis. But the rescuers confirmed that the
Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCGA) could not use the location data, since
the man was in the range of just one must. Therefore it was impossible to
identify his exact position via the location data of the telecom network.
“The mobile phone was most useful for keeping in contact,” declared the MCGA

Legislation to access public’s texts and emails put on hold (10.11.2009)

Protecting the public in a changing communications environment – news

Protecting the public in a changing communications environment –
consultation and response (6.11.2009)

Protecting the public in a changing communications environment – Summary of
Responses to the 2009 Consultation Paper (11.2009)

Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment (27.04.2009)

Briefing on the Interception Modernisation Programme by LSE Policy
Engagement Network (17.06.2009)

Home Office accused of sexing-up mobile phone rescue