Stuart Millar, Lucy Ward and Richard Norton-Taylor
Wednesday June 19, 2002
Ministers were yesterday forced into a humiliating climbdown over plans to hand a host of public bodies the right to demand access to the communicatio
ns records of telephone and internet users.
Bowing to intense public and political pressure, David Blunkett, the home secretary, admitted that the government had “blundered” into the issue as he announced that the proposals had been shelved to allow more consultation.
The move stunned opposition politicians and civil liberties groups, who had been expecting ministers to unveil tighter safeguards yesterday in response to the wave of resistance that had been growing since the Guardian revealed details of the proposals last week.
The draft order extending the reach of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – due to be debated yesterday, then postponed until next week as opposition swelled – has been withdrawn until the autumn at the earliest. It would have given a host of government departments, local councils and quangos the power to demand, on their own authority, access to detailed communications logs, including individuals’ email records and mobile phone location data. Current legislation gives only the police, the intelligence services, customs and excise and the inland revenue these powers.
Last night the Home Office also withdrew a second draft order giving the same list of public bodies the power to authorise themselves to conduct surveillance against individuals and to use informers.
In a development certain to increase pressure on ministers to restrict the number of bodies able to demand communications data, the Guardian has discovered that the watchdogs appointed to monitor the way ministers and public bodies use the sweeping powers given to them under the act have expressed serious doubts about their ability to do their job properly. It emerged yesterday that the chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Andrew Legatt, will have to oversee the activities of 1,039 public authorities with only a staff of 22 to help him.
In a little-noticed report published this year, he warned: “I clearly cannot carry out any meaningful oversight of so many bodies without assistance.”
Attributing the government’s change of heart partly to the objections of his son, Hugh, who works in the IT industry, Mr Blunkett said the proposals had been interpreted “entirely in the wrong direction”.
“When you are in a hole you should stop digging, and having full consultation on the issues raised seems the best way to do it,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
Lord Strathclyde, the Tory leader in the Lords, said: “Had we not made clear that we would seek to defeat these outrageous proposals they would have been rammed through the Commons.”
Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: “This government is not overly willing to stand up and defend civil liberties on principle so I think what has really caused this decision is the fact that the proposals are completely unworkable.”
The Devil is in the detail
Â· Police, the intelligence services, customs and excise and the inland revenue will be given the power under section 22 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to compel telephone, internet and postal service providers to hand over the detailed communications logs of individual users, without first seeking the permission of a judge.
Â· The Home Office wants to expand this list to include seven government departments, every local council and a host of other public bodies, including the postal service commission and the food standards agency.
Â· Until this section of Ripa comes into force, the police and all these other organisations can request communications data from service providers under the Data Protection Act, but the provider can refuse if they do not believe there are sufficient grounds for the request. In such cases, the agency making the request must convince a judge to give a court order to obtain the data.
Â· The data obtained could include name and address, phone calls made and received, source and destination of emails, identity of websites visited, and mobile phone location data which records the user’s whereabouts whenever the phone is switched on to within a few hundred metres. To access the content of communications (eg by placing a wiretap on a telephone or intercepting an email), the authorities still require a warrant from the home secretary.
Â· The data obtained could include name and address, phone calls made and received, source and destination of emails, identity of websites visited, and mobile phone location data which records the user’s whereabouts whenever the phone is switched on to within a few hundred metres. To access the content of communications (eg by placing a wiretap on a telephone or intercept an email), the authorities still require a warrant from the home secretary
Â· The data can be obtained on the grounds of national security, preventing or detecting crime, protecting the economic wellbeing of the UK, public health and safety, collecting tax, preventing death or injury in an emergency and any other purpose specified in an order by the home secretary.