The government’s revival of a multibillion pound plan for communications companies to store data on UK emails, web traffic and phone calls was last night attacked by the Information Commissioner.
Christopher Graham told the Financial Times that the plan, which would effectively give the government access to a huge store of data, was “disproportionate” considering the concerns over people’s information.
His stance could pose a major obstruction to the scheme, which was formerly launched by the Labour administration and had been opposed by a number of internet service providers.
Meanwhile, the Information Commissioner announced an investigation into Google’s Wifi data harvesting with its Streetview cameras. At the weekend, Google admitted it had captured some people's complete emails and passwords.
The revival of the government’s email and web data storage plans, in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, marks a policy U-turn by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. In May, shortly after the coalition came to power, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg branded the plan as “outrageous” and said it would be stopped immediately.
“We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so,” Clegg said at the time. But last week, the government confirmed the scheme would be reintroduced and said in its cyber security programme documentation that it would invest in technology “to support the gathering of communications data vital for national security and law enforcement”.
The government insisted it wanted to “preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework”. Communications data played a role in 95 percent of all serious organised crime investigations, it said. It is spending £650 million on cyber security over four years.
The Information Commissioner rejected the need for storing the information. A clear case had not been made, he said, considering the downsides of such a scheme.
“On the face of it, the proposal seems disproportionate when any perceived benefits that might be gained from retaining this data are set against the risks to privacy involved,” he told the FT.
Last week, it was reported that £2 billion of public money would be spent on the project over 10 years. A Home Office spokesperson said the figure had not been decided yet.
Under the proposals, the data will be held by internet service providers and phone companies, which will be obliged to hand over information when asked by the police and security services. The Internet Service Providers’ Association, which includes BT, BSkyB and Virgin, rejected the plan when it was originally announced by the Labour government in 2008.