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UK mulls admitting wiretap evidence in court

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The UK government is looking to make wiretap evidence admissible in court as part of its latest review of anti-terrorism legislation.

The UK courts currently do not allow it, though the practice is commonly accepted in most Western countries.

As part of plans to review anti-terrorism legislation, outgoing Home Secretary John Reid announced a review "into the potential ramifications of allowing intercept to be used in terrorism court cases".

The government is also pushing for police to be given the power for longer pre-charge detention, beyond the current 28 day limit. Government plans to push this limit to three months - a move critics describe as equivalent to internment - previously floundered and are highly controversial.

The latest anti-terrorism review will also consider giving police enhanced powers to "stop and question" suspects, and courts the ability to allow the support of terrorism to be considered as an aggravating factor when imposing sentences for general offences, such as credit card fraud.

Reid announced the consultation in Parliament on Thursday. The government intends to allow Parliament greater time to debate the proposed changes in legislation, a decision that reflects the enhanced status for parliamentary deliberations favoured by Prime Minister-elect Gordon Brown, as well as previous failures to fast-track longer detention of terror suspects past MPs and peers.

Lawful interception firm SS8 Networks welcomed the consultation. MI5 has been reluctant to allow wiretap evidence to be admitted in court fearing it would expose interception techniques. SS8 said concerns that the move might compromise the effectiveness of police and security services operations are misplaced.

"The use of wiretapping information as evidence in US court systems has been going on for decades and has not jeopardised the techniques and usefulness of this information," said Stephen Gleave, marketing VP at SS8 Networks. "Wiretapping and the use of wiretaps is a technique familiar to almost every adult on the planet. How it is done is fairly common knowledge or can be readily obtained and has not proven to reduce its effectiveness.

"Since the introduction of wiretapping legislation and the standards that support it, law enforcement agencies – with the proper legal authorisation and the cooperation of service providers - can now execute wiretaps using standards-based, off the shelf solutions. These solutions leverage wiretapping capabilities that are now commonly built into most telecommunications and data communications equipment to facilitate lawful intercept – itself typically a condition of license for service providers."

SS8 added that, contrary to movie myths, the call data information (who called who, when did they talk, where were they, how long did they talk etc.) is often much more useful in the investigation of crimes than the actual content of conversations. In the US, the vast majority of real-time intercepts are for call data only (130,000 per year) while intercepts that include voice number less than 3,000, it added.

Gleave said: "Even if law enforcement is concerned with the sensitive nature of lawful intercept technology and revealing their methods, the most basic of information, readily available off just about any switching equipment, proves to be by far the most relevant and useful." ®

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