The secret silo for your family's data

Phil Booth
26 August 2008

Those who question the 'database state' are often accused of alarmism. But what if we were to report that a recent series of announcements show that the government is already spending millions on a vast database that will retain digital copies of all variety of tracking and information about the whole population, our phone calls, bank accounts, commercial records as well as personal ones, and that it is creating the authority and powers which allow it to do this by hiding behind EU regulations which it has inspired, to impliment them without a parliamentary debate? Now read on:

Phil Booth (London, NO2ID): Back when Charles Clarke was Home Secretary, not long after the London tube bombings, he pushed EU justice ministers to massively increase communications data retention powers. Terrorism was, of course, at the forefront of everyone's minds - and frequently referred to by Mr Clarke in his championing of mass surveillance. Other countries such as Germany did not see the need for such wholesale interception of personal phone, text, e-mail and internet usage data. They were overruled.

Two years later, this turns out to have been a classic of policy laundering. The EU Data Retention Directive (EUDRD) 2006 /24 /EC provides powers to retain communications data, powers which the Home Office intends to take to the limit. Germany, which resisted the exercise, will probably take the minimum 6 months' retention; the UK is taking 4 times as long.

Yet again the Home Office refers to terrorism as a prime motivation for the creation of these powers, but the way the information will actually be accessed is through the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). As we now know, this means it will be made available to the hundreds of official bodies, including those well-known counter-terrorist agencies, our local councils - responsible for half-a-million surveillance applications last year alone.

(Don't forget that the so-called watchdog in this area, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, just recently went on record saying that local authorities are not using their RIPA powers enough. He literally called for MORE snooping! The lunatics really are running the asylum.)

Since this will be enacted as a Statutory Instrument enforcing an EU Directive, it is unlikely even to be debated in Parliament and, of course, it cannot be amended by our elected representatives. Perhaps this is why the "consultation" is taking place while they are on holiday. Are MPs being treated with contempt because they simply don't matter?

N.B. It should be noted that bugging and tracking genuine suspects in real ongoing investigations is unaffected. What is being developed  is mass-surveillance for the retrospective convenience of officialdom in general: keeping records of everything that might be convenient to know about you and me. "Just in case", is the justification.

At the same time the government continues to plan the building of a massive central silo in which to store all this retained communications data. And, of course, once it's in the silo (not held by ISPs and phone companies) it may well stay there indefinitely or for as long as they damn well please.

Payment for this marvellous snooping toy falls under the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), i.e. it's black money - part of the spooks' undisclosed funding. The Home Office has refused to answer parliamentary questions on the budget, citing national security concerns, but a recent article in The Register suggests that a senior official has already been appointed to run the project and that a nine figure sum has been committed, before the thing is even official policy.

And this is where things start to join up. In May, Gordon Brown said the Communications Data Bill - which everyone expects to include this central database - would be laid before the Commons prior to the Parliamentary recess. It wasn't. Now the powers in the EU Data Retention Directive will be forced onto the statute books as a Statutory Instrument, to populate a database already being built with spook cash beyond sight of Parliament.

Do you smell something rotten? Even the Information Commissioner thinks this stinks - and he can be a bit of a wet fish himself. But one source of complaint may be stilled. Companies have protested at the prospect of having to keep masses of data and then service the new directive. Hey presto! Here's a lovely new database to take the burden off big business and put it back on the very people who are being surveilled. Isn't it wonderful being a taxpayer?

The Home Office has the gall to claim that this is all compliant with the Human Rights Act and represents a "proportionate interference with individuals' right to privacy". Proportionate, my foot! The problem is that - yet again - the Government is playing incrementalism on duration. This time it's 24 months data retention, instead of twelve. 42 days for your physical body, how long for your digital one?

And, of course, as with the deterntion of the innocent without charge, the basic principle is being utterly ignored. They are proposing to abuse the privacy of tens of millions of innocent, law-abiding people by storing and searching their personal connections and communications. You, your partner, your kids, your parents. And the practical reality will be that this new system provides anyone who has access, direct or indirect, with unprecedented powers - cross-referencing and triangulation, profiling and sorting, fishing trips galore. The potential for abuse, misuse and mistakes (leading to miscarriages of justice, or worse) is simply terrifying.

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