As regular readers will know, the Open Rights Group have been following developments around what is known as the Intercept Modernisation Programme with great interest and concern. The programme has been reported to include a proposal to centralise the electronic communications traffic data of the entire UK population in a database under the control of Government authorities.
Reports yesterday suggest that the Home Office are reconsidering tabling the Communications Data Bill, the bill that would give this programme legislative cover, this year. In a speech to the ippr, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said:
The changes we need to make may require legislation. The safeguards we will want to put in place certainly will. And we may need legislation to test what a solution will look like.
But before proceeding to legislation, I am clear that we need to consult widely with the public and all interested parties to set out the emerging problem, the important capability gaps that we need to address and to look at the possible solutions. We also need to agree what safeguards will be needed, in addition to the many we have in place already, to provide a solid legal framework which protects civil liberties.
This consultation will begin in the New Year and I want this to be combined with a well-informed debate characterised by openness, rather than mere opinion, by reason and reasonableness. In this, as in the other work we do, my aim is to achieve a consensus and I hope that others will approach the serious issues posed for our national security capabilities in the same spirit.
So let me set the terms for that open and reasoned debate now, and be clear on what we are not going to do.
There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online. Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through such a database in the interest of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter terrorist legislation.
Local authorities do not have the power to listen to your calls now and they never will in future. You would rightly object to proposals of this kind and I would not consider them. What we will be proposing will be options which follow the key principles which govern all our work in this area – the principles of proportionality and necessity.
Creating this database - essentially an archive of every citizen's movements in the communications space - would drastically alter the relationship between the citizen and the state, handing national security and law enforcement agencies immense power to invade the private lives of ordinary people. It's absolutely right to call for a public debate on this issue, and ORG welcomes this call - cautiously.
It's clear the Home Office have realised that Intercept Modernisation presents a political problem, but have they also realised the deeper challenge to our democratic society their plans present? One way to answer this question would be to find out whether, as reports suggest, GCHQ are already pilotting the programme. Our Freedom of Informaiton request - if and when the Home Office finally answer it - may shed more light on this question.