Government withdraws surveillance plan

A draft order criticised as a 'snoopers' charter' for government bodies has been withdrawn

Home secretary David Blunkett has withdrawn a controversial addition to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) following a week of criticism from civil liberties groups and MPs of both parties.

The draft order, which was originally scheduled for a low-key debate on Tuesday, was designed to extend the scope of RIPA to cover several government departments, all local authorities and bodies such as the Food Standards Agency. Currently only law-enforcement agencies such as police organisations can gather data under RIPA rules.

As it stands, the organisations covered by the draft order require a court order to gather personal data such as the names of recipients of emails and the locations where a mobile phone is used, unless the ISP or telco voluntarily surrenders the data. Under RIPA, government bodies have the power to demand such data without a court order.

The move to extend RIPA powers to a much greater number of organisations met with heavy criticism, and the draft order was labelled the 'snooper's charter' by critics.

Late last week Parliament delayed the debate of the draft order and on Monday the Home Office indicated that Blunkett was planning to water down the powers granted by the proposed law in order to ensure its passage through the House of Lords. On Tuesday, however, Blunkett said he would withdraw the order for a "detailed consultation" over the summer.

"Whilst we want to provide greater security, clarity and regulation to activities that already go on, our plans have been understood as having the opposite effect," Blunkett said in a statement.

He called for a "broader public debate" on RIPA and also argued that the Data Protection Acts prevent RIPA from being misused.

Civil liberties groups, however, have made the point that the extension of RIPA to more organisations would push existing safeguards to their limits.

"It's easy to say that there are already some laws in place to handle this, but in practice it's difficult to see those standards being applied," said Dr Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties, last week. "The real damage was the enactment of RIPA. This is just putting the legislation into action."

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