Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Blears at Ideal Government

Home Office minister has sent a short piece on the EU data retention measures to William Heath's Ideal Government blog. It's generated a fair amount of traffic in the comments. She provides an example of where access to telecoms data led to the rescue of a kidnap victim.

"Where it has been available, such information has already proven critical. When a Ghanaian individual was recently abducted in the Netherlands having travelled through the UK, Dutch, Belgian and British police were able to close in on his kidnappers because of historic phone data they analysed. The man was freed from his captors, having suffered severe torture, and arrests were made as a direct result of information from phone records that might otherwise have been deleted. Such data was also critical in the conviction of a terrorist gang who set off bombs in London and Birmingham in 2003, injuring several people and causing millions of pounds worth of damage.

The deal that was reached between all three EU institutions balances the need for action with the need to agree legislation that is necessary and proportionate and which does not impose an unnecessary burden on industry. The data retained will only be disclosed in specific cases and will be subject to strict data protection rules. Any abuse of the data will be subject to sanctions.

I believe this agreement is an important step in delivering the right to citizens across the EU to live in peace and free from the negative impact of terrorism and serious crime."

I don't know the details of the kidnap case but it would be useful to know how long the crucial data leading to the rescue had been retained for in advance of its use by the police. Also how much effort was involved on the part of the police and the relevant phone company in getting at the appropriate information? From the victim's perspective, what matters is speed and efficacy.

Tracking web surfing, of course, is not the same and phone communications traffic data. The web surfing can reveal a lot more about an individual. So wouldn't there be more of a case for targeting the tracking of the web surfing of suspect individuals rather than blanket tracking of everyone. Without powerful, intelligent aggregating tools, law enforcement don't have the capacity to find out a huge amount about everybody but they will have the capacity to dig deeply into the surfing habits of a limited number of people.

When the Open University introduced an online communications environment as part of our teaching over ten years ago, there was genuine concern about the privacy in individual conference areas and the potential for big brother monitoring of tutoring duties, which up until that point had been in the traditional classroom and correspondence context. During the busiest period of the past ten years I have been responsible for about 155 associate lecturers, who in turn looked after about 3000 students. There were thousands of conference areas and millions of messages. I could not possibly monitor it all.

On that subject, though the technology did fundamentally change the nature of the distance education paradigm and my role as a facilitator of the process, my abiding memory of the toughest times is the reinforcement of the knowedge that what the technology really complimented was the process of putting people in touch with people that makes the high quality brand of distance education supplied by the OU possible; and the hundred-plus hours a week I'd spend in front of my computer screen, attempting to support the amazing folks trying to get to grips with integrating these tools into their teaching and learning. By and large most OU students and staff are fantastic people and the place works because we're good at getting those people together to help each other out.

Getting back to Ms Blears posting, William has some very sensible questions:

"- can they use comms data to investigate relatively rare instances of serious crime without mass systematic data retention?
- if so with what safeguards?
- how can we discuss and debate these issues before bouncing everyone into EU legislation?
- where do we go from here on this policy, which does strike me as an balance sinister and likely to further erode trust in on-line society."

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