The Internet is a very powerful tool and this has not escaped the
notice of people who wish to subvert the law. Some countries around the
world have very strict controls, with massive Internet
firewalls to ensure the public only sees what the government wants them
to see. There is a common feeling that the UK is moving to a
surveillance society, and with laws coming that will require
communications providers to retain telephone and internet records and
allow local councils and public bodies access to these the parallels
with the old East Germany will be obvious to many.
A consultation period is running on the final phase of the Transposition of Directive 2006/24/EC
ends on 31st October 2008. The consultation period covers the areas of
internet access, internet telephone service, and internet mail. At some
300 plus pages, the document is not easy going, but it
is keen to point out that while the law would require retention of the
fact an email went from Fred to John on 14th August 2008, the content
of the email would not be recorded.
The report confirms that a number of communications providers
already retain the necessary records as part of their normal business
or under previous voluntary schemes. The concern of many will
centre around areas like how RIPA has been used by local councils.
The family in Dorset that was under surveillance for three
weeks could with the new law expect the council to be trawling their
email records for any communication with a school outside their
The consultation paper talks about retention of internet connection
info, e.g. where and when, internet telephony and e-mail, but does not
mention other areas such as instant messaging. It is
possible that due to the voice and video aspect of most instant
messaging applications these will count as internet telephony. The
successes under current retention policies are highlighted in the
paper, but there is little talk of how false positives will be handled,
and what abuse safe guards are in place. The aim of the regulations are
"to ensure that this data is available for a minimum
of 12 months to assist in the investigation, detection and prosecution of serious crime".
There will be concerns about those with access to these powers
abusing them. One could see a local councillor perhaps abusing the
powers to spy on political opponents. Most people will accept that
investigations into serious crimes such as child abuse and kidnaps will
benefit from the obligation to retain internet communications data but
public confidence in such measures for local authorities
is unlikely to be strong.