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FIPR slams central communications database

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A proposal for a central database covering all electronic communications has been heavily criticised by members of the Foundation for Internet Policy Research.

At an event to mark foundation's 10th anniversary, a former director of the think tank described such a data warehouse as a deeply flawed plan, which had been previously suggested and rejected years ago.

The government is reportedly considering it as part of the Communications Bill in the next session of Parliament. It has already attracted criticism from people including from Jonathan Bamford, the assistant information commissioner. Bamford said the proposal "may well be a step too far" and expressed doubts about whether it could be justified.

"It's interesting that data retention had been wanted as early as 2000," Caspar Bowden told the meeting, held in London on 27 May 2008. As the foundation's first director, Bowden campaigned to reform the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) as it went through Parliament.

Bowden, now Microsoft's chief privacy officer in Europe but speaking in a personal capacity, said the concept of data mining the entire population's web traffic – which would become possible with a central database – was "Orwellian". He said that in 2000, the rejected request for such a system had come from the UK's security services.

Under Ripa, public bodies including security services, police forces and local authorities have the ability to retrieve "traffic data" – lists of websites visited, email headers, telephone billing data, but not the content of communications. Internet and telecoms service providers currently store "traffic data" for set periods.

The Earl of Erroll, a member of the House of Lords, said a central database of "traffic data" would weaken oversight, as the state would no longer have to apply to communications providers for access. "You've just lost a line of defence," he said, adding that other problems include how the data would be analysed and the fact that it was a single centralised system.

Andrew Knight, a senior Home Office civil servant, said that "Ministers have not made their minds up on the way forward" on whether to build a central database.

He defended the need for such monitoring across a broad range of enforcement work. "We do need public authorities to spell out how they are using Ripa," he said - Ripa also regulates physical surveillance. "Talk about snooping isn't used when talking about the benefits fraudster, even though that fraudster will have been caught out using Ripa."

Knight said that state surveillance is not just about tackling serious crime and terrorism, but for other crimes and for public protection. For example, he added: "It's for vulnerable missing people cases, where we need to find people quickly."

But Ian Brown, who followed Bowden as the foundation's director and now works for the Oxford Internet Institute, said that during its parliamentary process, Ripa had been sold as "very much about terrorism". However, it has recently been used to target far less serious offences, such as by the Borough of Poole Council for surveillance of families to see if they live in the catchment area for a school.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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