Sunday, October 28, 2007

Storm over new 'snooping law'

icWales.co.uk: Oct 28 2007 by Matt Withers, Wales On Sunday
A WELSH MP has blasted controversial new powers which allow public bodies to scrutinise anybody’s mobile phone records.

The powers permit nearly 800 UK organisations, from the police down to the smallest councils and most obscure quangos, to see phone records of anyone without having to ask their permission.

Signed off by the Home Secretary, they have been passed virtually unnoticed and were not debated in Parliament.

Last night Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid Cymru’s leader at Westminster, predicted: “You can rest assured, this is going to be abused.”

He claimed there was nothing to stop a council chief executive, for example, using the powers to see if his wife was having an affair.

“It’s far too wide and broad,” he said. “We should have far more regulation of it. Potentially, this is going to be a problem in the coming months and years.

“We need a proper look at this to see what regulations can be brought in to make sure it isn’t abused... because, rest assured, it will be.”

The new regulations came into force earlier this month after a personal decree by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith giving 795 public bodies across the UK the right to access anybody’s telephone records.

The Home Office insists the powers are needed to tackle terrorism, but civil rights groups questioned why, in that case, the Welsh Ambulance Service would need such powers.

The signing of the “statutory instrument” went virtually unnoticed by most MPs as it took place in July during Parliament’s summer recess.

It means data of calls and text messages may be obtained by any agency, stretching from the Welsh Ambulance Service, the Food Standards Agency Wales and Environment Agency Wales down to Torfaen Council.

The intelligence services and all four of Wales’ police forces also have access to the records.

Previously such agencies would have had to have permission from a judge. Now – for example – any council worker only needs the say-so of its deputy leader to see anybody’s phone records.

Police officers need to get the go-ahead from a superintendent.

Under the rules, landline and mobile companies must log and store all information about calls made in the UK for a year.
Since 2004 they have voluntarily provided the data when asked for.

Mr Llwyd added: “I don’t argue against the use in the fight against terror or indeed in the fight against serious crime. “But I’m very, very concerned about the broad sweep of it all. Frankly, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense that it’s so free and easy

“Why councils? Why the Ambulance Service? Why have they got free access? It’s beyond me, quite honestly. It’s convenient it’s been slipped in during the summer months.”

And Phil Booth, national co-ordinator of anti-ID card pressure group No2ID, said: “When this idea was first discussed by (former Home Secretary) Charles Clarke, it was about national security and serious crime – what good is it to a local authority?

“I find it hard to understand how local councils fall under the national security justification.”

His group did not oppose the police having access to the information, but questioned why, say, “an Anglesey Council worker should be entitled to look at anybody’s mobile records.”

His views were echoed by Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil rights group Liberty.

“There are actually a very broad range of purposes for which this information about who we’ve been phoning and when can be revealed,” she said.

“It includes, for example, the Gaming Board, the Food Standards Authority and every district and county council in the country.”

Requests for information would not be limited to those concerning serious crime and national security despite Home Office claims, she said.

“We’re talking about a profile that can be built of your personal relationships on the basis of who you’ve been speaking to and when.”

The Home Office insisted the new powers were vital in tackling terrorism and said they were consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and UK Human Rights Act.

“We are not intruding into people’s private lives,” a spokesman said.

matt.withers@mediawales.co.uk

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