'Terrorist' traffic data to be used against minor criminals

Communications data collected under an anti-terror Code of Practice will be available to the police for minor criminal cases

The Home Office has confirmed that new powers allowing the collection of electronic communications data for anti-terrorist investigations will also be used to provide law enforcement officers with intelligence on other criminals, such as tax evaders.

A voluntary Code of Practice has been proposed for inclusion in the government's emergency anti-terror bill, to provide Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with exemption from data protection laws so that they can stockpile traffic data for cases involving national security. Despite reassurances by the home secretary, David Blunkett, that this intelligence would be restricted to terrorist investigations, the Home Office has now said the data will also be made available for criminal investigations.

"The voluntary Code of Practice could provide a way for law enforcement to access this data for criminal investigations, and will be regulated under the terms of RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act)," said a Home Office spokesperson.

Traffic data collected under the voluntary Code of Practice would provide a "complete map of a person's private life" according to the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) think tank. "The rubric for the retained data is that it will show who you talk to, where you go and what you read," said Caspar Bowden, director of the FIPR. Records will include an individual's geographical location determined through their mobile phone, the "sender" and "recipient" information from emails, a complete log of a person's Internet sessions including their IP address, and the address of all Web sites visited.

Officially, compliance to the Code of Practice by ISPs will be voluntary, but the Home Office admitted to ZDNet UK last week that it plans to reserve extra powers to force ISPs to retain data about customers. "The Home Office has not given a straight answer about this, so we expect to see it buried somewhere in secondary legislation," said Bowden. "It would allow the government to force compliance on the Code of Practice."

The revelation contradicts Blunkett's earlier promises that the communications data will only be used for counterterrorist investigations. RIPA makes it possible for law enforcement officers to access traffic data without a court order, for the purposes of detecting crime and disorder, protecting public health and safety, and for collecting tax, as well as for cases of national security.

The Home Office could prevent these powers from applying to the anti-terror Code of Practice if desired. "If David Blunkett was taken at his word, there is a built-in device in RIPA that could be used without amending the Act," said Bowden. "The 25(3)b Order is a statutory instrument that allows the government to restrict the purposes of the powers of RIPA, which would make it possible for Blunkett to say that data collected under the Code of Practice could only be used for counterterrorism methods."

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