Draft Communications Data Bill - Draft Communications Data Bill Joint Committee Contents

3  Is there a need to access more communications data?

The 25% missing data figure

34.  The Government assert that the powers contained in the draft Bill are necessary to ensure that the powers of law enforcement, national security agencies and other public authorities keep pace with technological change. Communications technologies and services are constantly evolving and the Government are concerned that "the ability of the police and others to use this vital tool is disappearing because communications data from new technologies is less available and often harder to access".[25] The Government state that at present approximately 25% of communications data required by investigators is unavailable and that without intervention this will increase to 35% within two years.[26] The aim of the Bill is to bring availability back to around 85% by 2018.[27]

35.  The 25% figure has been much quoted in aid of the draft Bill but has also attracted considerable criticism. It is not clear what methodology was used to arrive at the 25% figure. The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) questioned how the baseline of 100% of data had been derived,[28] and we agree that this is not clear. We understand that the figure is based on research commissioned by the Home Office in 2011 on changing public use of communications combined with an appraisal of the technical feasibility of various methods to obtain communications data from CSPs but the Government did not share the details of either of these projects with us. It is not a simple case of being able to measure the percentage of requests for communications data which are turned down by CSPs because the figure includes requests that would have been made but were not made because the SPoCs knew the data would not be available so did not take the request forward.

36.  We are of the strong view that the 25% data gap is an unhelpful and potentially misleading figure. There has not been a 25% degradation in the overall quantity of communications data available; in fact quite the opposite. Technological advances and mass uptake of internet services since RIPA was passed in 2000, including social networking sites, means that there has been, and will continue to be, a huge increase in the overall amount of communications data which is generated and is potentially available to public authorities. This is illustrated in Box 5.

BOX 5: Increase in the volume of communications data since 2000

In 2000, just half of UK adults said that they had a mobile phone—that figure now stands at 92%. There are now 81.6 million mobile subscriptions in the United Kingdom.[29]

August 2001 was the first month in which over one billion text messages were sent in the United Kingdom.[30] Over 150 billion text messages were sent in 2011.[31]

Mobile subscribers only began to access the internet when GPRS technologies were introduced in 2002. Take up was slow, as it took time for providers to develop services (such as picture messaging and web browsing) that could easily be used, and for customers to be encouraged to buy internet-enabled devices.

The maximum speed of a mobile data connection offered in 2003 was about 32-40 kbit/s.[32] By December 2010, in good 3G coverage areas, average mobile speeds were 2.1Mbit/s.[33] With the advent of 4G, these mobile broadband speeds will increase very significantly.[34] This compares with the average fixed broadband speed of 6.2Mbit/s (November/December 2010).[35]

Social networking sites were in their infancy in 2000. MySpace was launched in 2003. Facebook was not launched until 2004.[36] It had a million users by the end of 2004, 100 million users by August 2008 and 1.01 billion globally by September 2012.[37] There are 30 million active Facebook users in the United Kingdom, around half of whom log on every day. Twitter was launched in July 2006.[38] It took 3 years 2 months for the billionth tweet to be sent. Now a billion tweets are sent every 2.5 days.[39]

In 2012, over 5.1 million customers access mobile broadband services via a laptop and dongle, and 39% of UK adults use their mobile phones to access the internet. The average UK consumer spends 90 minutes per week accessing social networking sites and e-mail, or using a mobile to access the internet, while for the first time ever time spent on calls on both fixed and mobile phones has declined.[40]

The total number of United Kingdom fixed broadband connections passed 20 million for the first time in 2011. In addition, the number of mobile broadband connections passed 5 million during the year, and by the first quarter of 2012 76% of United Kingdom homes had a broadband connection.[41]

37.  As the London Internet Exchange (LINX) put it:

"Certainly, as people make ever greater use of Internet-based services, there is an ever greater quantity of data that either exists, or could be brought into existence by statutory requirement. However to say that this "is no longer always retained by communications providers" is highly misleading: communications providers are retaining more communications data than ever before and making it available to public authorities under existing law. The mere fact that even more data could be created, collected and made available hardly constitutes a loss."[42]

38.  It is true that that even if there is more communications data available than ever before there may still be an operationally significant gap. Bob Hughes, Government Programme Manager, Telefónica UK-02, made the point that technology is constantly moving on and changing what is available and what is not.[43] Charles Farr confirmed that this was the problem the legislation seeks to address: "...there are far more communications and data attached to them, and there is far more data generally crossing the internet, not all of which is about communications. Those three things are definitely true. The key point is that the data there does not enable us to address the questions that law enforcement and the agencies have to address; in other words, there is more data but it is not always relevant or useful to us".[44]

39.  It is acknowledged on all sides that the volume of communications data now available is vastly greater than what was available when RIPA was passed. The much quoted figure of a 25% communications data gap purports to relate to data which might in theory be available, but currently is not. The 25% figure is, no doubt unintentionally, both misleading and unhelpful.

The missing data elements

40.  It was not long into our inquiry that we began to question the utility of the 25% figure and we asked the Home Office to identify what specific data types are currently missing. After some months the Government agreed to tell us on a confidential basis that there were three main data types that they hoped the legislation would be used to make available. At that point they argued that these data types could not be publicly identified without risking exposing loop holes to criminals. This need for secrecy was one of the drivers for the very broad drafting of clause 1.

41.  Finally, on 24 October Home Office officials publicly identified the data types that are frequently not available and that the Government intend to secure through the legislation. These are: (i) subscriber data relating to IP addresses (i.e. who is using an IP address at any given point); (ii) data identifying which services or websites are used on the internet (i.e. the web address up to the first /); (iii) data from CSPs based overseas who provide webmail and social networks to users in the United Kingdom.[45]

42.  We accept that IP addresses and web logs and data generated for business purposes but not retained by overseas CSPs are three data types which the law enforcement and other agencies cannot always access. We discuss in this report whether access to these data categories is necessary and, if it is to be enabled, the additional safeguards which will need to be introduced.

The capability gap

43.  It is not the case that these three data types account for the entire gap. Part of the gap is down to a lack of ability on behalf of law enforcement agencies to make effective use of the data that is available. This was confirmed in evidence from senior police officers including Sir Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police.[46] Detective Superintendent Steve Higgins from the National Police Improvement Agency explained:

"Are the police equipped and do they have sufficient knowledge? In April 2010, we conducted a national training needs analysis to look at just this very issue; we identified a number of skills gaps, not just in relation to accredited SPoCS but also in relation to investigators and analysts, in particular".[47]

44.  He then went on to explain that the National Police Improvement Agency has tried to address this through new courses for SPoCs, investigators and analysts. The accreditation of SPoCs is currently being reviewed and a programme of continuing professional development is being implemented. The National Police Improvement Agency is also looking to embed training on communications data within existing programmes of training for detectives.[48]

45.  Part of the gap is down to a lack of ability on behalf of law enforcement agencies to make effective use of the data that is available. Addressing this should be a priority. It does not require fresh legislation but will involve additional expenditure.

25   Home Office Q&A brief, page 10 Back

26   Home Office written evidence, paragraphss 13 and 15 Back

27   Home Office written evidence, paragraph 16 Back

28   ISPA written evidence, paragraph 23 Back

29   http://www.mobilemastinfo.com/stats-and-facts/ Back

30   http://www.text.it/mediacentre/facts_figures.cfm Back

31   http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/market-data/communications-market-reports/cmr12/uk/?pageNum=7 Back

32   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPRS Back

33   http://media.ofcom.org.uk/2011/05/26/mobile-broadband-speeds-revealed/ Back

34   http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9533158/iPhone-5-Britains-first-4G-mobile-network-hopes-for-exclusivity.html Back

35   http://media.ofcom.org.uk/2011/05/26/mobile-broadband-speeds-revealed/ Back

36   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook Back

37   http://finance.yahoo.com/news/number-active-users-facebook-over-years-214600186--finance.html Back

38   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter  Back

39   Evidence of Colin Crowell, Head of Global Public Policy, Twitter, Q 654.  Back

40   http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/market-data-research/market-data/communications-market-reports/cmr12/uk/?pageNum=7  Back

41   http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr12/CMR_UK_2012.pdf p14 Back

42   LINX written evidence, paragraph 36. Back

43   Q 443 & 445 Back

44   Q 874 Back

45   Q 865 Back

46   Q 1095 Back

47   Q 1108 Back

48   Ibid. Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 11 December 2012