Skip to main content

Privacy: Mobile Telephone and Internet Records

Volume 705: debated on Monday 17 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether their proposed database of mobile telephone and internet records complies with United Kingdom citizens’ rights to privacy.

My Lords, we have announced that we will consult in the new year on how to maintain the ability of police and intelligence agencies to protect the public using communications data in the face of the challenge of changing technology. This consultation will deal with striking the right balance between privacy and security. Any proposals that the Government bring forward will be fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

My Lords, given his Answer, does the Minister think that the public have any perception at the moment of what a huge step this is between being a person with a right to privacy and effectively being treated as a suspect? With 3 billion e-mails—that is, 35,000 every second—18 million internet connections and 57 billion text messages a year, does he think that this is really likely to prove the most effective way of fighting terrorism, given that the estimated cost will be up to £12 billion? Does he think that such a step of invading our privacy is a step too far?

My Lords, the noble Baroness misses exactly what is being done here. Communications data are the data of when someone uses their phone, whom they phone, the number that they phone and, probably, where they are. This is all stuff that all the companies keep. It is there today. It is actually sitting there on all their files on every one of us. Whenever we use a mobile phone, the data are there, and this has helped us on a number of occasions. In fact, it has helped on more than a number of occasions; 95 per cent of serious crime cases use these sorts of data to help to pin people down. In the murder of Holly Wells, for example, exactly such data enabled us to get hold of the person involved. They helped to get the murderer of Amelie Delagrange, and the Suffolk strangler. All these things come about because these data are held and we have access to them. We are not proposing that data that have never been collected are held; the question is how in the future, with all the changes that are coming, we can still have access to something that we regularly use today for serious crime and for counterterrorism.

My Lords, can my noble friend give us any indication of how quickly the evidence in the murder trials that he has described, and in other serious crimes, would disappear because of the move towards voice over internet protocol and the fact that these data will no longer be routinely kept unless the Government act on this matter? How quickly will we lose the capacity to have people convicted of these sorts of serious crime?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. The changes are being made because we are ahead of probably everywhere in the world in terms of moving to these new protocols. Organisations such as BT are doing this because it will save them a huge amount of money. They will be charging and transferring data on a totally different system. Exactly how quickly that will come in is difficult to predict, but it will be complete by about 2011-12. That is the sort of timescale we are looking at. There will be a progressive degradation if no one keeps these data. The whole point of our consultation is to look at the options. We have made no decisions as yet on which way to go and we are aware of all the complexities. But it would be a terrible mistake to lose all these data that we have had the use of for years and not be able to prosecute some very nasty and unpleasant people.

My Lords, the Minister says that this strikes a proper balance between privacy and the protection of the public. Does he not see a major difference between looking at individual accesses with a view to the detection of particular crimes, as he has described, and the collection of a record of every telephone conversation, every internet access and every text message made by you and me across the board, to be kept in a government-held database for ever? Will the Minister please provide a copy of the PowerPoint presentation given two weeks ago to ISPs describing this proposal in greater detail, since he appears not to want to tell your Lordships about it?

My Lords, I do not think that it is fair to say that I do not want to tell your Lordships about it. I am very happy to do more in terms of presenting what the problems are. Part of our consultation is exactly that; namely, pointing out the emerging problem, the difficulty, the data that we are beginning to lose, the capability gaps we want to address, how we should move forward and the possible solutions. I am sure all noble Lords would agree that it would be a terrible mistake for us to lose these data which are used with regard to 95 per cent of crimes and help to pin down some very unpleasant people. They are already there. Clearly, we have to look after data. We have to look after exactly what is collected and how it is held. Should it be held in a central database? How will it be done? That is all part of the consultation.

My Lords, in addition to the database proposed for mobile phones and internet records, since 1997, how many databases have been established to hold information on citizens of this country, of which they are unaware?

My Lords, perhaps I may get back to the noble Lord in writing because I do not know the answer to that question.

My Lords, will the Minister make clear whether the data which it is proposed should be held relate solely to the fact of a call having been made or to the content of the call which was made?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very good point. I did not make that clear enough, although I tried. Communications data are not about the content. They are purely to do with the billing information, which is crucial when someone is lying about when or where they have used their phone. They enable the police to pin people down when they say, “I was never in this region. I never did this” and we know jolly well that they did. More information is needed, but this does not apply to the content. The content is covered by intercept, which is and always will be dealt with in a very different way.

My Lords, the Minister is right. Does he agree that, if data are admissible currently in criminal cases, the matter will to some extent be resolved when the intercept itself is admissible to convict criminals?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord knows very well that we are pursuing the Chilcot recommendations. We are trying very hard. We would like to go ahead with that and ensure that we can use intercept as evidence, but we have to be absolutely sure that we protect our ability to gain certain types of data. Those are the tests as recognised by Chilcot. We are moving through a sequence of checking these out. If we cannot protect that, having used the abilities we have had for 43 years in war and peace, to give those abilities away to people who would cause damage to us would be a terrible mistake. I hope that we will be able to do it, but we have to be absolutely certain. We cannot lose that ability which gives us an edge on people who would do harm to us.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a safeguard has to be worked out that the information should be available only for the solution of serious crime, not to government for any other reason?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very good point. We need to think carefully about how some of this information is used, and, indeed, how legislation is sometimes used. There is an issue of local councils using legislation incorrectly, and we have now given them guidance to stop that happening. It is true that we need to look carefully at how it is used. To lose something that we are used to using for serious crime and terrorism, which has been crucial, would be a very silly mistake, and we should not do it.