UK Monitoring May Extend To Social Networking Sites

The Government may expand its plans to keep a record of all email, internet and phone communications to include communication over social networking sites. Users of services such as Facebook and Bebo can send each other messages via the sites.

Home Office security minister Vernon Coaker told a Parliamentary committee that it is considering including social networking site traffic in its plans to monitor online communications.

The Government is planning to store communications data for 12 months in order to comply with the European Union's Data Retention Directive. Communications data is information about web use or a phone call but not its content.

The Data Retention Directive is designed to make it easier for authorities to investigate and prevent crime.

Members of the Delegated Legislation Committee said, though, that social networking messaging would circumvent the Government's retention of details.

"Social networking sites, such as MySpace or Bebo, are not covered by the Directive," said Coaker. "That is one reason why the Government are looking at what we should do about the intercept modernisation programme because there are certain aspects of communications which are not covered by the Directive."

"[Our planned] intercept modernisation programme proposals…may include requiring the retention of data on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and all other similar sites," he said.

Under the Directive internet service providers (ISPs) must store the data. The Government's planned intercept modernisation programme involves the Government itself monitoring and storing the data. It is a proposal that first came to light last summer.

"I accept that this is an extremely difficult area. The interface between retaining data, private security and all such issues of privacy is extremely important," said Coaker. "It is absolutely right to point out the difficulty of ensuring that we maintain a capability and a capacity to deal with crime and issues of national security, and where that butts up against issues of privacy."

Coaker told MPs that the principle of collecting and storing data was a good one, and that law enforcement had improved since it was introduced for telephone calls.

"The co-operation of industry on communications data has saved lives. That is not an exaggeration," he said. "The regulations relating to telephony have already been used to place murderers at the scenes of their crimes, to prevent murders and kidnaps from taking place and to identify serious sexual offenders who would not otherwise have been caught as quickly. Internet-related communications data are just as vital. The final transposition of the directive will ensure that communications data from all major types of communication are retained consistently and made available efficiently."

Coaker was questioned on whether the Government intended to extend surveillance to the actual content of communications.

"Our consideration of the regulations comes against the backdrop of an increasingly interventionist approach by the Government into all of our lives, seemingly taking the maxim 'need to know' to mean that they need to know everything," said Conservative MP James Brokenshire. "Will [Coaker] provide further clarification and confirm that the retention obligations will not apply to an individual’s web-browsing behaviour – the individual websites that someone might visit – which might otherwise be captured?"

Coaker said that the Government intended to consult before introducing any such new law.

"We have not made up our mind. I know the hon. Gentleman keeps putting that out there. We have said we will consult on a variety of options," he said.

Facebook chief privacy officer and head of global public policy Chris Kelly told news website ZDNet UK that the company did not believe the proposals were the right course of action.

"We think monitoring all user traffic is overkill. There is legislation to allow law enforcement access to traffic data [of suspects]. We are not convinced at this time that expansion of those channels is necessary," he said.