Cybersnoop Proposal Roils UK

British law enforcement agencies are seeking the right to log every e-mail and phone call within the United Kingdom, according to a report by the deputy director general of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS).

The agencies are proposing that as a “matter of urgency,” communication service providers (CSPs) should be required to maintain logs of all calls, e-mails and Internet dial-up connections for a period of seven years. Currently many CSPs maintain such logs for 24 hours or less.

Under the terms of the proposal, police would not have the right to access the content of e-mails or phone calls, but would have access to logs that detail the time calls or e-mails were made, as well as which numbers or e-mail addresses were connected.

The report was written in August but leaked Sunday to the Cryptome Web site.

Long Arm of Law

The law is necessary, according to the proposal’s author, NCIS deputy director general Roger Gaspar, because “short-term retention, followed by deletion, will quickly render certain criminal elements beyond reach of the law.”

The proposal is backed by several organizations, including the UK’s security intelligence agency, also known as MI5, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Reportedly, the proposal is being considered seriously by the Home Office, the department responsible for internal affairs in England and Wales.

Digital Witness

According to Gaspar, records which were once in the category of eyewitness accounts, because they were written down, are now in the hands of machines.

“With advances in digital communications technology,” Gaspar added, “the only eyewitness account of crimes on the Internet is provided by communications data. There is no human involvement to witness the electronic activity, only a victim to the outcome.”

The report concludes that it is “in the interests of justice to preserve and protect data for use as evidence to establish proof of innocence or guilt.”

Liberty Issues

Although the government contends that the early deletion of communications data “will seriously compromise the interests of justice,” civil rights activists are calling for the government to reject the proposal, on the grounds that it is a breach of civil liberties and a violation of the Human Rights Act.

“The security services and the police have a voracious appetite for collecting up information about our private lives, but this is an extraordinary idea,” John Wadham, director of the civil rights group Liberty, said in published reports.

“If it goes ahead we will challenge this in the courts in this country and the European Court of Human Rights,” Wadham added.

However, Gaspar wrote in the report that the NCSI believes “the Home Office already accepts that such activity is unquestionably lawful, necessary and proportional, as well as being vital in the interests of justice and the protection of a free society.”

Private Warehouse

The proposal put forth by Gaspar recommends that data either be stored at government warehouses, or to avoid conflict-of-interest issues, in warehouses run by trusted third parties.

The report goes on to say that a government-controlled agency could be “economically advantageous, but would bring some political sensitivities.”

The cost to build a government-run data warehouse would be US$4.3 million, and the annual cost to warehouse data would be $13 million, according to Gaspar.

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