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Communications Data

Volume 710: debated on Monday 27 April 2009

Statement

The Secretary of State for the Home Department, Jacqui Smith, has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today published a consultation, Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment, which addresses the issue of communications data. The consultation explains how existing access to communications data by the police, security and intelligence agencies and by others helps protect and safeguard the public; how the rapidly changing communications environment will make it harder for these agencies and other authorities to obtain access to these data when they need to do so; and the measures we need to take to maintain existing police and agency capabilities in the future. It rules out the option of creating a central database to collect and hold communications data. I am inviting views on the changes we propose and how we will continue to strike the balance between respect for individual privacy and protection of the public.

Communications data are information about a communication, not the content of that communication. For a given telephone call, communications data can include the telephone numbers involved, and the time and place the call was made, but not what was said. For an e-mail it might include the e-mail address from which the message was sent, and to where it was sent, but not the content of the message.

Used in the right way, and subject to important safeguards to protect individuals’ right to privacy, communications data can play a critical role in keeping all of us safe. They enable investigators to identify suspects and their associates; provide vital clues in solving life-threatening situations such as kidnaps, and evidence supporting alibis and prosecutions; support lawful interception of communications; and assist the emergency services to help or locate vulnerable people. They are also critical to safeguarding our national security, and in particular to countering the terrorist threat.

Communications data are currently retained by the communications companies for their own business purposes, and access by public authorities to any of those data is tightly regulated under the safeguards specified in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, and overseen by the Interception of Communications Commissioner.

The existing regulatory framework which governs access to communications data is based upon the principles of necessity, proportionality, oversight and accountability.

Communications data are as vital a tool for investigating and prosecuting crime for our international partners as they are for the UK. Many other countries will face a loss of this capability due to the technological changes in the communications industry. Although other countries will face the same challenges as the UK, we will be among the first to be affected for several reasons:

the UK telecommunications environment is one of the most dynamic in the world, due to deregulation;

many leading western European countries still have dominant national fixed-line companies, whereas the UK has a more “open” market which encourages the spread and use of communications;

the UK’s competitive communications market encourages companies to find new ways to cut costs and offer new services, many based in the complex world of the internet.

Some of these new services will be offered by the companies in the UK that operate the existing communications networks, but many others will be offered by overseas companies outside UK jurisdiction. They have no need to retain data or provide agencies and the police here with access to them. Consequently, it will become increasingly more difficult to obtain the communications data needed to support public safety. We therefore need to take action to maintain this crucial capability, ensuring that the necessary strict safeguards are retained.

The consultation rules out creating a central database of communications data. However, doing nothing in the face of these changes is also not an option. Therefore I am inviting views on other ways in which current capabilities can be maintained in future. Communications companies will continue to be at the heart of the proposed system. They would continue to store data as they do today. But we will need to find ways of collecting and storing data relating to communications services provided from overseas providers.

Any reduction in communications data capabilities will seriously impair the effectiveness of our police and other services to protect the public. Criminals, terrorists and paedophiles are often among early adopters of new technology. We must ensure that our law enforcement agencies can continue to obtain communications data in the face of great technological change.

Copies of the consultation are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.