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UK Drops Plan for National Web Database, But Privacy Concerns Remain

April 28, 2009 02:30 PM
by Denis Cummings
The British government will not store phone call and e-mail records in a single state database, but authorities will still have access to the information through mandatory ISP databases.

“Big Brother” Database Scrapped

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The British government announced Monday that it is dropping a plan to store records of phone calls, e-mails and Internet activity in a national database, after stiff opposition from Conservatives and privacy advocates who believed it was an infringement of civil liberties. The government will instead rely on individual Internet service providers to track users’ activity.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stressed Monday that “communications data is an essential tool for law enforcement agencies,” but said that a central database was unnecessary. Authorities will instead be able to access databases maintained by ISPs, which are required to store user data for 12 months under a 2006 European Union directive that was fully implemented in Britain earlier this month.

Under a program costing the government 2 billion pounds ($3 billion), ISPs are required to track who users call or e-mail, and when they did so, but not the content of the call or e-mail. The government will also ask ISPs to track user activity on chat rooms and social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

Reactions: Privacy still at risk

Though critics of the national database are pleased that the idea has been scrapped, they believe the government is still infringing on privacy rights through the ISP database plan.

Scrapping the central database is a red herring,” said Simon Davies, the director of Privacy International. “The real threat arises from the sheer scale of the data the government wants to collect. Once these data sources are joined together we will have lost privacy for all time.”

The Daily Mail’s James Slack believes that Smith’s backtracking on the issue has nothing to do with security concerns; rather, she only abandoned the national database plan because she knew she could not get it passed.

“The Home Secretary has taken a carefully-calculated decision that the database plan has no prospect of being accepted either by Parliament or the public. … She appears to have concluded there was little point in inflicting another highly damaging defeat on the battered Government,” wrote Slack.

Conservative MP Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, was pleased that Smith listened to Conservative opposition, but still had many privacy concerns. “The big problem is that the government has built a culture of surveillance which goes far beyond counter terrorism and serious crime,” he said. “Too many parts of Government have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that's really got to change.”

Reference: Directive 2006/24/EC and Internet Security Guide

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