The government confirmed this week that its plans for retaining all communications data, including logs of phone calls, internet visits and emails, would not include the development of a £12bn centralised 'super database' to store the information.
Instead, internet service providers (ISPs) and communications companies will be expected to collect and retain the data, and make it easy for public authorities to access. However, industry experts have expressed concerns over the latest plans and their impact on privacy, arguing that they could be just as harmful as the 'super-database'.
"To be clear, there are absolutely no plans for a single central store," said home secretary Jacqui Smith. "We recognise that there is a delicate balance between privacy and security, but to do nothing is not an option, as we would be failing in our duty to protect the public."
The government will consult the public on its new proposal, and the enabling legislation, through a document called Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment.
In the document, the government recognises that collecting and retaining citizens' data interferes with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights - which gives individuals the right to private lives and correspondence - but argues that this is a "qualified right".
"Any interference with an individual's rights by the state is permissible as long as it is necessary (and not just reasonable) for a legitimate aim, and proportionate," the document states, adding that communication data is needed as vital evidence in trials and to prevent crimes.
Shami Chakrabarti, director at human rights group Liberty, applauded the government for its "climb-down on the super Big Brother database" .
However, Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock pointed out that details of the new proposal still remain vague. He questioned what safeguards the ISPs will employ, which government departments will be allowed to view the data and when access will be allowed.
"The new set of powers [the government] intends to give to communication companies might be just as intrusive to individuals' privacy as the database would have been. We just don't know," said Killock.
Alex Brown, a partner at law firm Simmons & Simmons, was most concerned about "scope creep", arguing that, once the government is given the authority to retain personal data, it might use the information for purposes beyond the current proposals.
Brown gave an example of how the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which allowed the government to intercept emails, has since been used by local authorities to ensure that children attend schools in their catchment area.
Simon Davis, director of Privacy International, maintained that the government could never have achieved the central database it first proposed, and is unlikely to have the technology expertise to enforce its latest scheme.
"The database would have collapsed under its own weight," he said. "And it will now be interesting to see how the government will deal with communications transferred through steganography, for example." Steganography refers to the hiding of messages in images, for example.
Meanwhile, the Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) has welcomed the government's consultation into the retention of communications data, but has raised questions surrounding the cost of its implementation.
"To ensure that any updated law enforcement requirements do not place extra financial burdens on ISPs, ISPA stresses the importance of cost recovery," said ISPA secretary general Nicholas Lansman.
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