British Home Office proposals requiring social networking sites like Facebook to log details of their users’ movements are completely unworkable, a privacy campaigner said today.
UK Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker revealed earlier this month that the British government’s intercept modernisation programme may be extended to include “the retention of data on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace and all other similar sites”.
It is already intended to store information about every telephone call, email, and internet visit made by anyone in the UK on a central database.
Under the new proposals, the sites could be required to hold data about who users correspond with, but their actual messages would not be collected.
Michael Parker, spokesman for campaign group NO2ID, said: “The government is enforcing data sharing and the pillaging of private information.
“Their plans for the intercept modernisation programme were completely unworkable to begin with and are becoming more so with every addition they suggest.
“The idea of tracking calls, texts and emails made by people in the country is unspeakably offensive.”
Details of the proposals were disclosed by Mr Coaker earlier this month at a little-noticed British Commons committee to examine draft EU directives.
He said the British government was considering acting on social networking sites because they were not covered by the latest proposals from Brussels.
“Social networking sites, such as MySpace or Bebo, are not covered by the directive,” he said.
“That is one reason why the government are looking at what we should do about the intercept modernisation programme because there are certain aspects of communications which are not covered by the directive.”
Mr Coaker acknowledged the plan would raise fresh concerns about the right to privacy.
“I accept that this is an extremely difficult area. The interface between retaining data, private security and all such issues of privacy is extremely important,” he said.
“It is absolutely right to point out the difficulty of ensuring that we maintain a capability and a capacity to deal with crime and issues of national security, and where that butts up against issues of privacy.”
A UK Home Office spokesman stressed the British government was not seeking the power to examine the content of messages sent via the sites.
“The Government has no interest in the content of people’s social network sites and this is not going to be part of our upcoming consultation,” the spokesman said.
“We have been clear the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we collect communications data needs to change so that law enforcement agencies can maintain their ability to tackle terrorism and gather evidence.
“To ensure that we keep up with technological advances we intend to consult widely on proposals shortly. We have been very clear that there are no plans for a database containing the content of emails, texts, conversations or social networking sites.”
Earlier this month, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust warned that as many as a quarter of major public sector databases are fundamentally flawed and almost certainly break the law.
The study of 46 major government databases found 11 – including a planned index of all children in England – should be scrapped or overhauled as they were “almost certainly” illegal under human rights or data protection law.
Director of human rights group Liberty Shami Chakrabarti said: “The widescale use of social networking websites highlights the enormity of government ambitions for a centralised communications database for the surveillance of the entire population.
“While open public consultation has been constantly delayed, officials have been involved in a frenzy of private briefings with journalists and opinion formers.
“Technological development is used as an excuse for centralised snooping of a kind that ought never to be acceptable in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth.”