The government wants communications service providers to record, retain and process details of all communications that take place over their networks, the home secretary said on Monday.
Jacqui Smith was speaking at the launch of a consultation entitled Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment. She said it was essential for such information to be easily accessible by public authorities, including the police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), HM Revenue & Customs, and the intelligence agencies.
The information that the government wants communications service providers (CSPs) to store and process covers the circumstances of communications — that is, who was contacting whom, and when and how that communication was made — rather than the content of those communications.
Legislation has already come into force that requires service providers to retain details of user internet access, email and internet telephony for a year. The rules being proposed in the Home Office's new consultation, however, also take in communications made using third-party providers, such as webmail providers and social networks such as Facebook. Facebook's chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly, told ZDNet UK in March that such plans were "overkill".
Smith said on Monday that, if public authorities are to access and correlate many kinds of communications data within a reasonable timeframe, they need such data to be held in a form where it can be easily and quickly accessed. Soca director-general Bill Hughes, speaking at the same event, also said communications data were "essential tools" for fighting crime.
"They are critical in tackling the threat posed by serious and organised crime," Hughes said. "Without the retention of communications data we would need more informants and more surveillance, which is more expensive and less effective."
The government is talking to CSPs about minimising the costs associated with processing the data on the provider side, Smith said. She noted that the new rules would put a "burden" on the CSPs, and said the government would recompense them for their troubles — although the level of that compensation still needs to be established.
The home secretary also told ZDNet UK that the consultation period would take in other details, such as the level of deep packet inspection that would be required.
"Deep packet inspection is already used by the industry," Smith said. "The extent to which it will be used [in the future] is one of the aims of the consultation."
Smith acknowledged public concerns about the state holding data and about that data being concentrated in one place, and said the government was "explicitly ruling out" a centralised communications database, due to a "need to make a balance between public protection and concerns over intrusions into privacy".
In a statement released on Monday afternoon, the ISP Association (ISPA) welcomed the Home Office's explicit rejection of a centralised database and said it expected the government to "commit to reimbursing service providers for any extra costs of storing and retrieving data".
"ISPA advocates a proportionate approach to data retention," ISPA secretary general Nicholas Lansman said in the statement. "To ensure that any updated law-enforcement requirements do not place extra financial burdens on internet service providers, ISPA stresses the importance of cost recovery. We will continue discussions with the Home Office and other stakeholders on this matter and look forward to a constructive dialogue."