UK's database plan condemned by Europe

Human rights commissioner says government plan to store information is violation

Law Correspondent,Robert Verkaik
Wednesday 31 December 2008 01:00

Britain must rethink plans for a database holding details of every email, mobile phone and internet visit, Europe's human rights commissioner has said in an outspoken attack on the growth of surveillance societies. Thomas Hammarberg said that UK proposals for sweeping powers to collect and store data will increase the risk of the "violation of an individual's privacy".

Plans for the database of emails, phone calls and internet visits are to be published by the Home Office in January. These proposals have already been described by the Government's own terrorism-law watchdog as "awful" and attacked by civil liberty groups for laying the basis of a Big Brother state.

Mr Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, told The Independent that surveillance technologies are developing at breathtaking speed. In a direct criticism of Britain, he said: "It is therefore worrying that new legislation proposals intend to expand the authorities' power to allow personal data collection and sharing. Although safety measures are foreseen, the adoption of these measures would increase the risk of violation of individuals' privacy.

"The retention and storing of data is delicate and must be highly protected from risk of abuse. We have already seen what a devastating and stigmatising effect losing files or publishing lists of names on the internet can have on the persons concerned. This is particularly relevant to the UK, where important private data has been lost and ended up in the public domain."

The commissioner was critical of the way the UK collects and keeps DNA from people cleared of any crime. Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the indiscriminate collection of DNA was illegal.

"Following the judgment of the Strasbourg Court," Mr Hammarberg said, "the UK will have to review whether keeping details of all these individuals breaches their right to respect for privacy. The UK might choose to follow the example set by Scotland, where the DNA data of unconvicted persons is only retained in limited circumstances, namely adults who have been charged with violent or sexual offences, and even then, for three years only, with the possibility of a further extension for two years with the consent of a sheriff."

The Home Office is still considering the impact of the judgment before deciding how to address the concerns raised by the court and the commissioner. But the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, says she wants to press ahead with bringing in powers to monitor email and internet traffic to help fight terrorism and crime, although ministers would not seek the right to see the content of internet communications.

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs, supported Mr Hammarberg's criticism, saying: "A major database for email, mobile phone calls and the internet would be an astonishing and Orwellian step. 1984 was supposed to be a warning, not a blueprint."

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