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Private firm may run UK spy über-database

Former top prosecutor slams planned 'data hellhouse'

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A private sector firm may be given the job of maintaining a proposed super-database tracking the telephone and internet records of Brits.

The option of turning over the task of running the planned communication database to a private firm, due to feature in a Home Office consultation document due out next month, would be accompanied by tough sanctions against leaks or information security breaches, The Guardian reports. The plan, coming from a government which lost 29m records last year, has already been widely criticised.

A database of call and internet records is supposedly needed to aid the fight against terrorism and other serious crime but the former head of the UK's prosecution service has warned that the plans will create a personal data "hellhouse".

Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, told The Guardian that the proposed assurances on information security under consideration by the government are nothing but a facade that is likely to crumble sooner rather than later.

"Authorisations for access might be written into statute. The most senior ministers and officials might be designated as scrutineers. But none of this means anything. All history tells us that reassurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis the locks would loosen," Macdonald said.

Legislation to establish the über-database was postponed in October in favour of a further round of consultation by the Home Office. The Home Secretary argues that a database on call records (including location but not the actual content of conversations and SMS) and internet use data is needed as part of plans to modernise the UK's existing interception regime. As things stand, ISPs and telcos supply such data in response to requests by law enforcement agencies or the security services.

Estimates for the cost of establishing a super-database suggest it might cost anything up to £12bn ($17.4bn), or twice as expensive as the ID cards scheme. Ministers hope that putting the project into the hands of the private sector will help to reduce costs.

Macdonald argued that creating the über-database represents a further move towards a Big Brother-style "surveillance society". He further argued that, over time, and especially in the event of a security crisis, more and more officials would be given access to information on the database.

"The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people," Sir Keith said.

The former DPP first criticised the super-database plans in October and has hardened his criticism since. Maintaining a capacity to carry out lawful interception of communications data was possible without constructing a hugely expensive super-database, Macdonald argues.

"This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information. It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls," he said. ®

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