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Thursday, December 15, 2005 

No Trousers Charlie wins EU pact for new snoopers charter.

Remember the snoopers charter? Back in the halcyon days of 2002, the then home secretary David Blunkett intended to let hundreds of different government officials and companies have access to the records of internet and mobile phone usage. He backed down after the plans were leaked to the Grauniad, sparking outrage. Now 3 years later Charles Clarke has managed to get a very similar piece of legislation through the European parliament, and hardly anyone has batted an eyelid.

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, yesterday won an agreement across Europe to ensure that telephone and internet records are stored by telecoms companies for up to two years.

The deal, which won the backing of the European parliament yesterday, will mean that police investigating terrorism and serious crime will have access to the commercial traffic logs of all phone calls, text messages, emails and instances of internet use by suspects.

Mr Clarke said: "This agreement on retaining communications places a vital tool against terrorism and serious crime in the hands of law enforcement agencies across Europe."

The new EU directive will make it mandatory for telecoms firms to keep phone and internet data for a minimum of six months but will not cover police access to the content of calls or emails, and will be subject to strict data protection. Mr Clarke said yesterday he would however urge EU governments to make it mandatory to store data for up to two years. He had made the issue a key element of the British presidency of the EU; it proved highly controversial, with Germany, Ireland and other countries raising concerns about privacy and cost.

The deal will mean that the voluntary agreement with the telecoms industry in Britain will now become mandatory across the EU. At present in Britain, emails, text messages and internet data are kept for six months. Telephone details, including numbers dialled, the time and duration of calls, and location of the mobile, are kept for 12 months.

Even details of calls that are connected but go unanswered will be archived on the grounds that they could be signals to accomplices or used to detonate a bomb.

Mr Clarke said yesterday the EU member states would each decide on how long the data should be kept, and whether they would reimburse telecoms firms. The UK contributes £6m a year to national costs.

There was also flexibility in the ruling to ensure new forms of data are covered.

Yesterday, the Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford said it amounted to a green light for mass surveillance: "Ordinary citizens could find details of their movements, acquaintances and favourite websites circulating in Whitehall."

On the surface the deal sounds fairly reasonable. Only police investigating terrorism and serious crime are likely to have access to the records, and then they will only be able to see the time messages and calls were made, not the content of them. Then you realise that "serious crime" can be very broadly interpreted. MI5 during the 80s kept huge databases on "subversives", many containing information on people who only had a casual interest in left wing politics or might have happened to attended a protest on nuclear disarmament. Now we are also told that embassies are drawing up lists of people who should be banned from entering the UK. Babar Ahmed is being extradited to the US on the pretext that he supported Islamists in Chechnya and Afghanistan through a website that was based in the United States, despite him living here.

None of the above inspires confidence that these powers will not be abused. Of nearly every new power the police are given, they use it to their advantage in ways which it was not meant for, i.e. the section of the Terrorism Act that led to the heckler at the Labour party conference being stopped from entering the hall. Then we remember that there are many companies dying to get their hands on our personal information, such as the major supermarkets and advertising firms, let alone those who use such information to set up bank accounts in the names of those who become victims to identity fraud. Finally, we have the entertainment industry, which would dearly love to have to avoid the hassle of getting court orders against ISPs to reveal what their customers are doing on the web, intent on cracking down against the teenagers who dare to sample music or films before they buy.

Just try and imagine all the phone calls, messages and web sites you would make, send and visit in two years. Through this the authorities can build up a whole picture of the life that you lead. We trust the companies that we use to keep this information private, and the majority have done. Can we trust that the government will be so careful? Many will say that if you've nothing to hide, then you've nothing to fear from such legislation. The simple answer to that is that everyone has something to hide, some thing however small or big that they would never tell either their partners, their friends or their parents. With this legislation, the government and the police will know your every movement, if they are so inclined to inquire about it. Faced with the threat of suicidal terrorism, it seems that the public and the majority of the politicians have given up their privacy to stop a small minority of threatening people. Once again, those who wish us harm seem to have won.

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