Do GCHQ email monitoring plans open doors for Big Data technology?

Do GCHQ email monitoring plans open doors for Big Data technology?

Government plans serve as a useful reminder for businesses to strengthen their privacy policies

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Big Data technologies could become 'must-have', rather than 'nice-to-have', tools for certain businesses, in light of the government's plans to introduce legislation that will reportedly give the police access to communications data in real time.

The communications data includes information such as what websites individuals have visited, and who they emailed, but not the actual content of exchanges. This aspect is not expected to change under the new law, which aims to allow intelligence officers to continue to gather data they need for criminal investigations from new technologies such as Skype.

"We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes," said a Home Office spokesperson, who said that a warrant would still be required to obtain the data under the new law.

While civil liberties campaigners have been up in arms over the plans, it is not the privacy issues that are new here, but rather the 'real-time access' to data.

Existing data regulations in the UK – such as the Data Retention Directive – already allow intelligence officers to access historic communications data held by ISPs (Internet Service Providers), telecommunication companies and social media platforms, while the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) allows access to real-time communications data on a one-off basis.

Although a draft version of the new legislation is not expected to be unveiled until the Queen's Speech in May, the availability of technology to enable businesses to comply with the law has been called into question.

"What's new is that this legislation means it could be demanded in real-time, rather than simply asking for historic data. Whether this is feasible or not depends on whether there is the technology available to deliver that information quickly – otherwise ISPs will struggle to comply through no fault of their own," said Kathryn Wynn, senior associate at law firm Pinsent Masons.

"Given the enormous number of transactions involved there is also the danger that GCHQ will suffer from information overload, trying to sift through millions of calls, emails, texts and web visits to find what they are looking for in real time, rather than analysing patterns in historic data."


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