The government is to debate an amendment that would extend the powers of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to a myriad of government departments.
RIPA, which was originally passed two years ago, provides any department covered by the act with the right to obtain the communication records of phone, postal and internet users, without the need for a court order.
When it was first passed the act gave the police, intelligence services, customs and excise and the Inland Revenue the power to require ISPs, telcos and postal operators to hand over detailed information on customers on request. Data which can be requested includes name and address, source and destination of emails, address of websites visited and calls made and received on both a land line and mobile phone, plus mobile phone location data.
The extension is due to be debated on June 18 and if passed will come into force on August 1. The new departments which would be covered include seven Whitehall units, every local authority in the country and all of the NHS agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A full list of the agencies covered can be found here.
The reasons given for the introduction of this extension are that it simply tightens up the controls over powers that all the agencies covered already had. A Home Office spokesperson said "These departments were already able to request this information through the Data Protection Act and the Telecommunications Act, but it was voluntary before", meaning that the companies that held personal data didn't have to hand it over on request. The extension would make divulging this data compulsory.
The Home Office claims that the extension would also tighten up the regulations regarding how departments request information: "Before the process came under two acts…and was not as tightly regulated. Now there is a more specified set of circumstances, where information can be provided by a much more strictly regulated system", explained the spokesperson.
Departments can only request information for reasons of national security, public health, or in an emergency — such as when someone is severely injured and may die.
But despite such attempts to allay fears, Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a non-profit think-tank for internet and information technology policy, is not convinced.
"I am appalled at this huge increase in the scope of Government snooping. Two years ago, we were deeply concerned that these powers were to be given to the police without any judicial oversight. Now they're handing them out to a practically endless queue of bureaucrats in Whitehall and Town Halls" he stated.