The Sunday Times reported (on Sunday) that passports will be needed to register mobile phones, after which mobile users' details will be collated on a centralised government database.
This would supposedly cut a loophole out of the upcoming Communications Data Bill, which the Home Office has proposed should include a centralised database of details of all communications, including phone, email, and web-surfing habits. The loophole being that pay-as-you-go customers would still effectively be anonymous, hence the idea that people use their passports when buying a phone.
This idea is so patently full of holes that it's worse than useless. IT managers at corporates are in charge of hundreds, even thousands of corporate devices. Would they have to register all of their employees on a centralised government database, if they use work mobile devices?
Members of the Jericho Forum, a group of corporate security officers who wrestle with identity management problems daily, said the idea just wouldn't work.
"For corporates this would be incredibly difficult to work, because you cannot guarantee who the user is," said a Jericho Forum spokesperson.
How about the rest of the population? Surely this kind of measure would just encourage a thriving black market in mobile phones for criminals and terrorists, while infringing on the civil liberties of innocent UK citizens? In other words, infringe on privacy while providing inadequate security?
So, bad idea. However, the plot thickens. When I rang up the Home Office to check the veracity of the Sunday Times story, the Home Office categorically denied that the story was correct.
"It's not true," said a Home Office spokesperson. "There is no basis for this story." The Home Office also sent me a statement:
"The communications revolution has been rapid in this country and because of changes in technology the way in which we collect communications data needs to change too. If it does not we will lose this vital capability that we currently have and that we all take for granted in fighting and solving crime," said the statement.
"Of course there is a balance between privacy and our liberty which is why we have said we will be consulting on this and seeking a political consensus. No decisions have been taken and we will be consulting in the New Year," the Home Office added.
The Sunday Times also reported that Vodafone was making "contingency plans" just in case the government decided to bring in its database and register all mobile users.
However, when I rang up Vodafone it also categorically denied that the story was true.
"Vodafone does not support mandatory registration for its pre-pay customers and has not made any 'contingency plans' to start requiring registration for the purposes of a Government data collection scheme," said Vodafone. "Pre-pay services hold an important role in terms of preventing a digital divide in communications. There is no need for a credit check and if customers do not have a permanent base, or a passport, they are not excluded from using these services."
So how could the Sunday Times, a respectable publication, have got it so wrong? Well my gut feeling is that it didn't get anything wrong at all.
It may come as a shock to you, oh wide-eyed innocent reader, that the media can be used and manipulated in many ways. One of the ways that a government body such as, say GCHQ, can test the popularity of a proposal is by "leaking" it to the press. If the story sinks without trace the government has an idea it can probably get away with including it in legislation. If it creates an uproar then the government can drop the idea, while denying that the story was ever true.
My feeling is, and bear in mind this is conjecture, is that GCHQ punted the idea to the Sunday Times to test the water. If Sunday Times readers, on the whole a fairly intelligent and non-hysterical lot, get het up about the story, followed by the rest of the press, then the Home Office can turn around and deny the story was correct. GCHQ using the Sunday Times as an unofficial YouGov, if you like.