The Sunday newspaper pundits have been working themselves up into an indignant froth about the Government starting to consult about its Interception Modernisation Programme. Henry Porter in The Observer, for example, regaled his readers with his fantasies about Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, as a “comic-strip super-villain dominatrix” and describing the proposal as “a very great threat to individual privacy” It may be that Henry Porter needs a cold bath, but he certainly needs to focus on some facts.
At present, telephone companies keep data on their subscribers who make telephone calls, who they connect to and for how long. They do this, so that they can bill people. For many years, it has been possible for the police to access this data as part of their investigations into crime. To do so, they have to get proper authorisation, certifying that accessing the data is proportionate to the crime being investigated and each case has to be considered individually. The data can be used as evidence in Court and does not involve tapping the call and listening to the content. Many trials rely on this evidence for criminals to be convicted – there is a murder trial under way at the moment where the crucial evidence is which mobile phones contacted each other just prior to and immediately after the murder took place.
But – and this seems to have passed the pundits by – technology is changing. Telecoms companies (both fixed line and mobile operators) are building new networks based on VoIP technology. This is cheaper and more flexible and - critically – does not require detailed call-by-call billing. The data on which so many trials now rely will soon cease to exist. The Government is therefore quite rightly going to consult on what can be done to capture this information and allow it to be used in criminal investigations where necessary.
It is not about giving the police more powers to pry into people’s personal lives. It is about not losing vital material that is currently used to catch criminals.
And, of course, new forms of communication are being created all the time (eg. on social networking sites and chat facilities built into on-line gaming). Should the police have powers to find out who is communicating with who in these new ways? That’s what the consultation is about. It is not some monstrous new assault on civil liberties. It is allowing a sensible debate about how existing powers should be modified to reflect the changes in technology.