Relax, the Home Office is protecting us all

Last week, the Home Office released its summary of responses to its reassuringly-titled consultation “Protecting the Public in a Changing Communications Environment” (dubbed “You’ll Never Talk Alone” by privacy wags). This relates to the Government’s plans to introduce new legislation that would give enforcement authorities greater powers in respect of access to communications data, and oblige communications providers to retain more of that data. As Claire set out in her post marking the release of the original consultation, the general view was a guarded “could be worse”, in particular in respect of the Home Office’s decision to drop plans for a single, centralised database.

The response document makes interesting reading, not least in showing the Government’s approach. In respect of the three consultation questions directly relating to the Government’s plans, the highest level of support from respondents that the Government achieved was 53%. However, this does not take into account the views of 90 of the 221 respondents who, rather than answer the consultation questions directly, objected generally on the grounds of opposition in principle to any sort of surveillance. If those respondents are taken into account (and assuming that they do not support the Government’s plans), the approval level for the Government “maintaining” its information-gathering capability by responding to the new communications environment falls from the published 53% to 31%. Using the same figures, the approval level for the Government’s actual proposals falls from an already low 29% to 17%, and the percentage of respondents feeling that the Government’s proposed privacy safeguards are adequate falls from the published 26% to a tiny 15%.
Despite this deeply underwhelming response to the public consultation, the Home Office’s plans appear to be to plough on regardless, suggesting that their proposals “have been widely misrepresented”. To be fair to the Government, the task of giving due weight to the evidence of ACPO on the one hand and civil libertarians on the other is not easy. Nevertheless, it is particularly interesting that the Home Office is happy to list the Information Commissioner’s role as one of the safeguards protecting the public’s privacy, and yet seems to ignore the ICO’s own statement in response to the consultation that “the Information Commissioner believes that the case has yet to be made for the collection and processing of additional communications data for the population as a whole as being relevant and not excessive”.
All of the above may end up being irrelevant anyway, as any legislation arising out of the Home Office’s consultation would now almost certainly have to be introduced after the forthcoming general election. Roger has already given Datonomy readers some of his observations on the Conservatives’ likely approach to this area if they win the election.

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