Communications Data Collection and Storage

April 26, 2009

The government launched a new consultation on communications data on 27 April.
Publishing the consultation – Protecting the public in a changing communications environment – the government explicitly rules out setting up a single store of all communications data.
The consultation outlines ways to collect and retain communications data and seeks views on how to strike the right balance between privacy and security. The system the government is proposing is based on the current model where Communications Service Providers (CSPs) collect and store the data and where we have strict and effective safeguards in place to regulate access by public authorities.

The government proposes:
• legislating to allow all data that public authorities might need, including third party data (data generated by communications services based overseas but crossing the networks in the UK) to be collected and retained by CSPs
• having CSPs process the data to enable specific requests by public authorities – such as the police and Security Service –  to be processed quickly and comprehensively.

The Home Office Press release describes ‘communications data’ as the ‘who, when, where and how’ information from mobile phone calls, texts, e-mails and instant messages, but states that it does not include the content. The use of communication data is said to be an important capability that is used by the police and other agencies in the UK and around the world to protect the public and fight crime.

Statements from the Home Secretary, the Metropolitan Police and SOCA

Jacqui Smith said, ‘My key priority is to protect the citizens of the UK and communications data is an essential tool for law enforcement agencies to track murderers and paedophiles, save lives and tackle crime. Advances in communications mean that there are ever more sophisticated ways to communicate and we need to ensure that we keep up with the technology being used by those who would seek to do us harm. It is essential that the police and other crime fighting agencies have the tools they need to do their job.  However, to be clear there are absolutely no plans for a single central store. We recognise that there is a delicate balance between privacy and security, but to do nothing is not an option as we would be failing in our duty to protect the public.’

Temporary Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service Janet Williams, said, ‘I can’t stress enough how integral to our investigations communications data is. Traditionally the types of data available for analysis were relatively limited but with the communication revolution creating multiple new formats the challenge for us is that current legislation hasn’t kept pace. Its continued availability is essential for us to ensure that criminals are not able to gain the advantage. It allows us to save lives, establish how co-conspirators are linked and develop leads. From both an investigative and prosecution perspective it is crucial in helping us get to the truth. Without it I believe it would seriously impede our ability to successfully investigate a range of crimes and keep the public safe.’

Sir Stephen Lander, Chair of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, said, ‘Communications data and intercept intelligence are essential tools in 95% of the most serious crime investigations in the UK. Any significant reduction in the capability of law enforcement agencies to obtain and use this information would lead to more unsolved murders, more firearms on our streets, more successful robberies, more unresolved kidnaps, more harm from the use of Class A drugs, more illegal immigration and more unsolved serious crime overall.’

Statements from the Conservative Party and Liberty

Conservative Party

Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, has welcomed Labour’s decision to cancel the proposed single database holding information from e-mails, phone calls and internet use.
He said, ‘It is good that the Home Secretary appears to have listened to Conservative warnings about big brother databases. Now that [Jacqui Smith] has finally admitted that the public don’t want their details held by the State in one place, perhaps she will look at other areas in which the Government is trying to do precisely that.
Chris Grayling attacked Labour for creating ‘a culture of surveillance which goes far beyond counter terrorism and serious crime’ – and complained that ‘Too many parts of Government have too many powers to snoop on innocent people and that’s really got to change’.



The Liberty statement reminds readers that, while it understands the importance of this data in the prevention and detection of serious crime and terrorism, it has voiced concerns about the dangers of centralising this data since the proposals were announced by the Home Office in October 2008.

Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty, said:

‘We applaud the Home Office climb-down on the super Big Brother database and thank the broad coalition of sensible voices who brought it about. It is a clear signal that the public interest in personal privacy can no longer be ignored. However, if companies are to be required to hold even more information than they do at present, concerns about access and use become even more important. Let us look forward to this U-turn on communications data being followed by limiting DNA retention, dumping ID cards and a less callous approach to privacy protection more generally.’


Liberty takes the view that CSPs already hold large amounts of communications data and an EU directive that came into force earlier this month now requires that data is retained for 12 months. The Government is now proposing that data generated by communications services based overseas by crossing networks in the UK be collected and retained by CSPs.