Communications data

On 14 June 2012 the government outlined vital powers to help catch criminals, save lives and protect children in the draft Communications Data Bill.

Draft Communications Data Bill

The command paper is available on the Parliament website. The bill will ensure law enforcement agencies maintain the ability to tackle crime and terrorism as criminals use modern technology and new ways of communicating to plan and commit crime. Without action by government crimes enabled by email and the internet will increasingly go undetected and unpunished. To accompany draft legislation we have undertaken an impact assessment and privacy impact assessment.

The draft communications data bill will be subject to scrutiny by a joint committee of both houses. We anticipate that the membership of the committee will be announced in the coming days. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) will be conducting its own, independent, inquiry into the draft Communications Bill, as this is an area that impacts on the work of the intelligence agencies. The ISC intends to work to a similar timetable to, and liaise with, the joint committee undertaking the formal pre-legislative scrutiny.

The facts about communications data

Why is it important?

Communications data has played a role in every major Security Service counter-terrorism operation over the past decade and in 95 per cent of all serious organised crime investigations. It is vital to law enforcement, especially when dealing with organised crime gangs, paedophile rings and terrorist groups.

It is used by the police and the security agencies in the investigation of all crimes, including terrorism. It enables the police to build a picture of the activities and contacts of a person who is under investigation. It is routinely used as evidence to support prosecutions in court.

What is it?

Communications data is the information about a communication. It can include the time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, and the location from which a mobile call is made, or the 'to' and 'from' addresses of an email. Sometimes it includes the location of the originator of the communication.

What is it not?

Communications data does not include the content of any communication - the text of an email or a conversation on a telephone. It is information about a communication - not the communication itself.

How do police get access to it?

Companies providing communications are required by law to collect and securely store communications data, and also have business reasons to do so.

The police and others can get access to communications data if they can demonstrate that it is necessary and proportionate in an investigation. Access is on a case by case basis and is subject to oversight.

What is changing?

Communications technology and communication services are changing fast. Broadly, more communications are now taking place on the internet and fewer communications by phone. Communications data is harder to obtain because for some services it is not collected and stored as they may have no business purpose for doing so; the police and others are therefore unable to get access to it.

There has been a huge increase in the use of new technology and the volume of data on UK networks in recent years. There are now more than 80 million mobile phone subscriptions in the UK. Over a quarter of UK adults are smart-phone users, with 60 per cent buying their phone in the last year. Data volumes transferred over mobile networks increased by 67 per cent in 2010. 

We estimate that about 25 per cent of communications data that could be useful to operations is not available to the police and security agencies at required timeliness or quality. This has a direct impact on the investigation of crime in this country and on our ability to prosecute criminals and terrorists.

Our response

The Home Office set up a programme of work to preserve communications capabilities to protect the public in the future, as internet-based communications become increasingly popular.

Our work is about maintaining existing capabilities. It is not about developing new, more intrusive powers.

Why is legislation needed?

New communications technologies are generating communications data in different ways and communications data is no longer always retained by communications service providers. This has a direct impact on the investigation of crime in this country and on our ability to prosecute criminals and terrorists. Given the pace of technological change, this problem will grow.

Legislation is needed to ensure that communications data continues to be available to the police and others in the future as it has in the past. This legislation will replace the communications data provisions of RIPA.

Without action by the government there is a growing risk that crimes enabled by email and the internet will go undetected and unpunished.

Legislation will not...

  • enable unfettered access by the police to data about everyone's communication
  • provide the police and others with powers to intercept and read your emails, phone calls or check your contacts lists
  • create a single government database containing your emails and phone calls to which the police and agencies can get unlimited and unregulated access
  • weaken current safeguards or checks in place to protect communications data
  • allow local authorities greater powers; in fact we are restricting local authority access to sensitive data through the Protection of Freedoms Act, which means that authorities will have to apply to magistrates for the first time to obtain certain types of data - a change which is new under this government

Strategic Defence and Security Review

The Strategic Defence and Security Review looked at the importance of our capabilities for counter-terrorism and serious organised crime and assessed that communications data and lawful interception capabilities are vital for counter-terrorism and fighting serious organised crime.

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