Privacy watchdog calls Home Office plans threat to British way of life

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has said that a single database of phone and internet usage records would undermine the "British way of life". The privacy watchdog has said that it will scrutinise Government plans for storing that information.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith last week talked for the first time about what the Government's records-storage law the Communications Data Bill might look like. She has said that the Government will consult the public on the issue. The ICO said it would fully participate in that process.

"It is likely that such a scheme would be a step too far for the British way of life," said an ICO statement. "Creating huge databases containing personal information is never a risk-free option as it is not possible to fully eliminate the danger that the data will fall into the wrong hands. It is therefore of paramount importance that proposals threatening such intrusion into our lives are fully debated."

The Government announced before summer that it would create the Bill in this Parliament but did not confirm specific plans. It has been widely reported that ministers are considering building a single database to hold details of citizens' phone and internet use.

The Government must pass legislation by next year which orders telecoms companies to make details of calls made and internet activity, though not the content of sessions or calls, to law enforcement authorities. The EU's Data Retention Directive says that the information must be available for between six and 24 months.

Currently such information is made available by telecoms firms on a case by case basis, but ministers are considering creating a Government-run database to house the records.

The ICO has previously warned that such a move would be unjustified.

"If the intention is to bring all mobile and internet records together under one system, this would give us serious concerns and may well be a step too far," said Jonathan Bamford, assistant Information Commissioner, earlier this year. "We are not aware of any justification for the state to hold every UK citizen's phone and internet records."

Reporters have been told by Home Office sources that ministers are worried about the fact that communications can take place within websites such as social networking sites, and that law enforcement authorities should have access to that data too.

Smith said last week that such data is a vital crime fighting tool, and that the way that law enforcement authorities access and use information must change.

"Communications Data – that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves – is used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004," she told the Institute for Public Policy Research last week.

"But the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we intercept communications and collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted," she said.

"We welcome the fact that the government intends to fully consult the public on any scheme it brings forward," said the ICO this week. "Precise details of the plans are unclear at this stage; the ICO will be studying the proposals once published and responding to the Government's consultation in due course."