Communications data

Without action by government, crimes enabled by email and the internet will increasingly go undetected and unpunished.

What it is

Communications data (CD) provides the context not the content of a communication: who was communicating; when; from where; and with whom.

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 it is used

CD is currently used by the police and the intelligence agencies in the investigation of all types of crime, including terrorism. It enables the police to build a picture of the activities, contacts and whereabouts of a person who is under investigation.

CD is routinely used as evidence to support prosecutions in court. A recent study by the Crown Prosecution Service Organised Crime Division showed that they used CD as evidence in over 85% of the cases they brought to trial between April and July 2012.

CD has played a significant role in every major Security Service counter terrorist operation over the last decade, and in 95 per cent of all serious organised crime investigations.

Storage and access

The police and intelligence agencies currently use communications records about phone contacts to investigate crimes and catch criminals.

These records are collected by the communications industry for their own business purposes. They are retained by them under the existing Data Retention Regulations, which cover how data about telephony-based services should be kept for the purposes of law enforcement.

Law enforcement, the intelligence agencies and some other public authorities can seek access to these records if they can demonstrate that access is necessary, proportionate, and is connected to a specific investigation or operation. Access is granted on a case-by-case basis and is subject to independent oversight to prevent misuse of these powers.

Keeping pace with changing technology

Communications technology and communication services are changing fast. More communications are now taking place on the internet and fewer communications by phone.

Communications in the UK are rapidly shifting from verbal to written, with the average person in the UK sending nearly 200 text messages a month during 2011, up 17% on 2010 figures.

There has been a huge increase in the use of new technology and the volume of data on UK networks in recent years. In 2011, UK internet users consumed more mobile data per connection than any other country at 424MB. 39% of UK adults now own a smartphone, an increase of 12% over the past year.

Communications records are becoming harder for law enforcement and the intelligence agencies to obtain because, for many internet-based services, the industry does not collect and store these as they may have no business purpose for doing so.

Capabilities are degrading as a result of rapidly changing technology. A significant proportion of communications records that could be useful to operations are not available to the police and intelligence agencies at the 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.

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.

Why legislation is needed

Now and in the future, police and intelligence agencies need similar information about the digital world as they already have for phone records or they will be unable to pursue investigations.

We need to make sure that, when necessary, the communications industry – including application and communications service providers, telephone and mobile companies – keep information on how customers use internet-based services.

Legislation would:

  • Require communications service providers to retain records where they would not otherwise retain it for business reasons.
  • Enable records to be provided to public authorities efficiently and with the minimum possible impact on individuals’ privacy.
  • Extend safeguards and checks to protect CD.
  • Replace existing communications data access provisions in current legislation.


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 widespread.

A Draft Communications Data Bill was published on 14 June 2012. The Draft Bill is available on the Parliament website. It has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny since that point by a Joint Committee of both Houses. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has also conducted its own, independent, inquiry into the Draft Bill, as this is an area that impacts on the work of the intelligence agencies.

The Joint Committee reported on 11 December 2012. The ISC issued a summary of their report and conclusions at the same time. In their findings both Committees have recognised the need for new laws.

The Home Office has considered the Joint Committee’s recommendations carefully and accepts the substance of them all. In light of this the Bill is currently being re-drafted and the Home Office plans to engage with interested parties on our proposals in the coming weeks.

Further information

Case studies

You can find out more about how communications data is used in investigations to fight crime, reduce fraud and to prevent terrorist attacks in these case studies.

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