Data watchdog issues stark warnings

The government's plans to create a database of telephone and internet intercept communications, is "a step too far for the British way of life," the information commissioner said today.

Richard Thomas made the comments at the launch of the annual report of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

"There needs to be the fullest public debate about the justification for, and implications of, a specially created database potentially accessible to a wide range of law enforcement authorities holding details of everyone's telephone and internet communications," Thomas said.

He referred to speculation that the Home Office is considering collecting this information from phone companies and internet service providers (ISPs). This has been reinforced by the government's Draft Legislative Programme which, referring to a proposed Communications Data Bill, referenced "modifying procedures for acquiring communications data".

Thomas questioned: "Do we really want the police, security services and other organs of the state to have access to more and more aspects of our private lives?"

The government plans criticised by the ICO also extend to the expansion of the DNA database and the centralised collection and retention of data from Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras as two other recent examples of increased data collection and retention.

But Thomas welcomed last month's report from the all-party Home Affairs Committee warning of the dangers of excessive surveillance.

The ICO also took aim at poor public data security practices, as the ICO also today issued the two enforcement notices it said earlier this month it was readying for Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Following HMRC's loss of unencrypted discs holding data on 25 million UK citizens and the disappearance of a number of MoD laptops, the notices require both departments to provide progress reports documenting how recommendations are being implemented to improve data protection compliance. Failure to comply with such an enforcement notice is a criminal offence.

The annual report also said that the ICO received 24,851 enquiries and complaints concerning personal information from 2007 to 2008. The ICO has prosecuted 11 individuals and organisations in the last 12 months.

Miya Knights

A 25-year veteran enterprise technology expert, Miya Knights applies her deep understanding of technology gained through her journalism career to both her role as a consultant and as director at Retail Technology Magazine, which she helped shape over the past 17 years. Miya was educated at Oxford University, earning a master’s degree in English.

Her role as a journalist has seen her write for many of the leading technology publishers in the UK such as ITPro, TechWeekEurope, CIO UK, Computer Weekly, and also a number of national newspapers including The Times, Independent, and Financial Times.