UK plans to force telecoms to store records in central database

3pm BST update

Alarm at plan for central store of telecoms records

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Tuesday May 20 2008. It was last updated at 17:11 on May 20 2008.

A government database holding details of every phone call made, email sent and minute spent on the internet by the public could be created as part of a centralised fight against crime and terrorism, it emerged today.

News of the proposal prompted alarm about the country’s growing surveillance culture and raised fears of "data profiling" of citizens. It follows on from plans for databases for ID cards and NHS electronic patient records.

Telecoms companies and internet service providers would be compelled to hand over their records to the Home Office under proposals that could find their way into the new data communications bill.

The information would be stored for at least 12 months and police, security services and other agencies across Europe would be able to access the database with court permission.

Industry sources have warned that a single database would be more vulnerable to attack and abuse.

There are also concerns about the ability of the government to manage a system containing billions of records. About 3bn emails are sent in Britain every day and last year 57bn text messages were sent.

The government has previously come under fire for its apparent inability to manage huge computer projects.

The Passport Agency’s new system was branded a fiasco in 2006 when it went online but was unable to issue new passports, and the creation of the new NHS electronic records database is currently £7bn over budget and well behind schedule.

Discussions have been held between Home Office officials and telecoms companies and ISPs as part of preparations for the data communications bill, which is to be announced in the Queen’s speech in November.

Jonathan Bamford, the information commissioner, said: "This would give us serious concerns and may well be a step too far. We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen’s phone and internet records. We have real doubts that such a measure can be justified, or is proportionate or desirable.

"We have warned before that we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Holding large collections of data is always risky – the more data that is stored the bigger the problems when the data is lost, traded or stolen."

Gareth Crossman, the policy director at the human rights group Liberty, said: "Justifications of convenience might suit the government. However, this will create a centralised database of communications data instead of requiring justified access from internet and phone companies in individual cases.

"This moves us away from targeted intelligence operations and potentially allows phishing expeditions and data profiling."

David Davis, the shadow home secretary said: "Given the government’s appalling record at maintaining the integrity of databases holding people’s sensitive data, this could well be more of a threat to our security than a support."

The proposals are part of the Home Office’s plans to bring the UK’s data storage regulation into line with EU directives.

The idea of an EU-wide statutory storage period for phone, email and texts was pushed by the then home secretary, Charles Clarke, in the wake of the London bombings in 2005.

Since last October, telecoms companies have been obliged to keep telephone and text message records for 12 months. Under these latest proposals, that requirement would be extended to include internet records, emails and voice-over-internet use.

Currently, police and security services can access the records with a court-issued warrant. The new proposals would mean that rather than individual companies holding their own records, they would hand them over to the government for storing.

A Home Office spokesman said preparations for the new bill were ongoing and nothing concrete had been decided. However, he said changes to the bill were needed to reflect changes in the telecoms sector and related investigatory powers.

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