Police want wide powers to bug Net

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A CONTROVERSIAL extension of the powers to bug people and intercept mail and electronic messages was put forward by the Home Office yesterday.

In future, organisations such as MI5, MI6, police, and Customs and Excise would be able to get wider ranging and longer lasting warrants to eavesdrop on suspects. Internet users, people using telephones in hotels, and mobile phone owners, could come under greater scrutiny. However the proposed regulations will also crack down on employers snooping on staff and eavesdropping on private telephone conversations.

Civil liberty groups criticised some of the measures contained in the Home Office consultation paper, arguing they would allow far greater opportunities for secret tapping without providing adequate independent scrutiny.

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said the new powers were needed to help the police keep pace with criminals who were exploiting modern forms of communication to plot and carry out crime.

He argued that the streamlined regulations will bring together existing pieces of legislation covering public and private telephone networks, mail and items such as messages on pagers and CB radios.

In 1998 the Home Secretary increased the number of warrants used to intercept tele-communications to a record 1,763 in England and Wales, up from 1,456 the previous year.

Among the key proposals contained in the consultation paper, Interception of Communications in the United Kingdom, are plans to have a new warrant that would allow law enforcers to "listen in" and bug a suspect on a wide range of locations and electronic systems, such as mobile telephones and e-mails.

At present a warrant is needed for each "tap". Police say the move is needed because criminals use a large number of telephones and electronic communications systems to try and avoid detection. The new warrants would last three months rather than the current two and could be updated with the permission of a senior civil servant rather than the the Home Secretary as at present.

Since the existing regulations came into force in 1985, there had been an explosion in communications, including the privatisation of the telecoms industry and development of the Internet and e-mail.

A proposal to include private telephone networks in the regulations comes after the former assistant chief constable of Merseyside Alison Halford won a case against her employers at the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that they bugged her office telephone. The case highlighted a loophole which meant that interception regulations did not cover calls made on a private telephone network, such as those used in offices or hotels.

John Wadham, director of the civil liberties group Liberty, said he had serious concerns about several of the planned measures. "This proposal will allow a substantial increase in the number of communications that are subject to surveillance and at the same time to lead to a watering down of the systems of scrutiny and safeguards," he said.

Information obtained from listening into private communications is inadmissible in court, but the Home Office is asking whether this should change.