GCHQ wants to create a central, government-run, database that assembles ‘live taps’ on every electronic communication in Britain; this includes for instance information on (draft) e-mails, chatroom discussions, internet browsing and phone communications. Now information is scattered across temporary storage sites held by hundreds of private firms, making the reconstruction of the history of so-called “friendship trees” between members of terrorist cells almost impossible.
Lowering the cost of surveillance is likely to lead to more so-called “fishing expeditions”, where officials use the communications patterns of known targets to identify unknown targets. As a Home Office spokesman is quoted as saying in the Guardian: “It… gives investigators the potential to identify other forensic opportunities, identify witnesses and premises of evidential interest.”
A spokesman of the UK’s information commissioner, Richard Thomas, had real doubts that this suggested part of the “Interception Modernisation Programme” or Communications Data Bill, can be justified, or is proportionate or desirable and warned that the UK is “sleepwalking into a surveillance society”. No one yet knows exactly how to ensure police and intelligence agencies do not abuse their access to the database.
The Open Rights Group had submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office, asking them to shed light on the Intercept Modernisation Programme, but the reply was delayed because the Home Office wanted “to consider whether the request meets the public interest test”.
The Interception Modernisation Programme was one of the responses of the UK Government in February 2008 to the recommendations of the Chilcot committee, which was tasked to advice on the use of communications intercepts as evidence in Court. The committee concludes that it should be possible to find a way to use some
intercept material as evidence, provided – and only provided – that certain key conditions can be met. These conditions focus heavily on the need to protect national security.