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Snooper's Charter

Big Brother | 13.09.2003 14:29 | Repression | London

Wide powers for state bodies in new 'snoopers' charter' for a total invasion and intrusion of privacy and civil liberties.

More than 24 state agencies and hundreds of local government officials will be given powers to demand the personal details of citizens under a revamped "snooper's charter" published yesterday.

However, the Government said additional safeguards to prevent unwarranted intrusions would address the public concerns that forced ministers to withdraw an earlier version of the charter.

There was an outcry last summer when the Government sought to extend the powers of quangos and other organisations to gain access to communications data. Civil liberties groups denounced the measure as an invasion of privacy and it was withdrawn.

In its revised form, the same public bodies - ranging from the Environment Agency and the Information Commission to the Gaming Board and Food Standards Agency - will be able to demand the personal details of phone calls and emails.

Other organisations include NHS trusts, the Financial Services Authority, the Royal Mail and more than 450 local authorities.

Their access to the information will be granted only if a judicial third party, such as the Interception of Communications Commissioner, considers that it is needed to investigate crimes.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the police, MI5, Customs and the Inland Revenue can already obtain such information. Given the expansion of email and mobile phone technology, the Government now wants other bodies to gain similar powers.

Automatic access will be given to the ambulance service, fire authorities, HM Coastguard, the Scottish Drugs Enforcement Agency and the UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary.

About 20 other agencies will be able to seek the same information but will be covered by more stringent controls. Agencies would first need to obtain clearance by the Interceptions Commissioner to carry out such inquiries. For individual checks, permission would then need to be granted by designated senior officials.

The Government says the agencies need the data to enforce the law and not merely to pry into people's lives. They will not see the contents of communications - something that requires a warrant - but they will be able to insist that internet service providers, telephone companies and postal operators hand over the information.

This can include names and addresses of customers, their service use records, details of who has called whom, mobile phone locations accurate to within 100 yards and the sources and destinations of e-mails. It can also involve call waiting or call barring information, itemised call records and subscriber details.

Despite the new safeguards, such information would be sufficient for a ministry or other public sector organisation to track and stop attempts by campaigners, journalists or members of the public to uncover information.

However, Bob Ainsworth, the Home Office minister, said the powers would be used only in the detection of criminal activity, such as fraudulent trading or selling unfit food.

He said the Government agencies involved all had some law enforcement powers in such fields as health and safety, anti-pollution or fraud.

"In a democratic society there is always a difficult balance to strike between respect for privacy and ensuring crime is tackled effectively," he said.

"These proposals defend the privacy of the citizen while ensuring crimes are investigated and the law of the land upheld."

Mr Ainsworth said the new charter was a consultation document and if anyone strongly objected to a particular organisation having such powers they could make their opinion known.

John Wadham, director of Liberty, said that the new proposals were an improvement on the first draft but that the only true and independent safeguard for the citizen was a warrant from a judge.

Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: "They have tinkered at the edges and made a few cosmetic changes but there is nothing substantially different from what was on offer before. It is still a snooper's charter."

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