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Home Office extends online snooping laws

About-face on civil liberty assurances

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The Home Office is to perform an about-face on what the authorities are entitled to do with electronic communications data captured through the RIP Act.

It is looking increasingly likely that The Home Office will award itself the power to gather:

  • Your email addresses
  • The Web sites you visit
  • Details of people you email
  • The ISP(s) you use
  • Your location according to a mobile phone and other details, if the Government believes it is detecting crime and disorder, protecting public health and safety, collecting tax or there is an issue of national security.

According to The Guardian, the Home Office is trying to disassociate itself from several offical assurances that data captured under the Act will only be used for serious criminal cases.

Now it appears that captured data may be used for minor offences, and extensions sought after the 11 September attacks will not be restricted just to anti-terrorist activities - as Home Secretary David Blunkett strongly suggested it would be just a fortnight ago.

The RIP Act allows for the collection of data - without a court order - for detecting crime and disorder, protecting public health and safety, collecting tax, and in cases of national security.

Such a wide definition has provoked heavy concerns since the Act became law last year. The deciding factor, however, has always been the associated Code of Practice for the Act, which is supposed to provide a practical guide to how the Act can be enforced.

The Code has been delayed time and again as civil servants have tried to encompass contradictory laws - including the Data Protection Act and Human Rights Act - as well as civil liberties concerns. It was eventually put out to public consultation in August this year with a final deadline date of 2 November.

But then of course the 11 September attacks happened and the last few weeks have seen several ambiguous statements from the Home Office over extensions on how much data ISPs will be required to record and how long they will have to hold it.

(The Home Office has emphasised each time that this is a "voluntary" requirement for ISPs - but let's be realistic here for a second, what UK ISP in its right mind would get in the way of the government? Plus the Home Office has suggested it will also give itself new powers to enable it to force ISPs to comply with the voluntary agreement - you couldn't make it up.)

This in turn has led to all sorts of speculation in the Internet community over what the Home Office is cooking up.

Simon Hughes, LibDems home affairs spokesman, told The Guardian: "We understand the argument for data retention for specific purposes under terror legislation for the period of an emergency. There is a different argument, with much less justification, for general powers from now, in theory, until eternity."

The Home OFfice's Anti-Terror Bill, drawn up following 11 September is due to be heard in the House of Commons home affairs select committee. ®

Related Link

Guardian article today

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