Government scraps email 'super database'

Home secretary Jacqui Smith has cancelled plans for a super-database of all phone calls, emails and internet use in Britain, following public outcry over the proposals.

Acknowledging that the public was "rightly concerned" about the original proposals, she said the government will monitor the communications in other ways.

Under new proposals, communications companies such as BT, Virgin Media, O2 and others will record all contacts, including Facebook and Twitter usage, but not the content of messages or calls. Communications firms will be obliged to retain and structure all the data for up to 12 months and hand it to the police when required. This will enable the police to link suspicious activity to specific users, PCs and mobile devices.

Around £2 billion of taxpayer money will be spent on the new plans, as communications firms expand the information they store and organise it. Some of the money may be given to the communications companies to help fund their investment, but it is not known how much.

Original plans for the central database were last month lambasted by a report from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which called them "almost certainly illegal".

The new plans came as the government today published a public consultation paper, 'Protecting the public in a changing communications environment' . It argued that communications data was vital in solving cases and prosecuting criminals.

Arguing that “to do nothing is not an option”, Smith said: “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.”

But she added “there are absolutely no plans for a single central store” of data. While the consultation document states that a single database “could be the most effective technical solution ... the government recognises the privacy implications of a single store of communications data and does not, therefore, intend to pursue this approach”.

Temprorary assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and head of the Police Central e-Crime Unit, Janet Williams, gave her support to the proposals. She said communications data was “integral” to solving crime, as it enabled the police to see how co-conspirators were linked.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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