Privacy International launch campaign for consumers to obtain their records from telecommunications companies

Privacy International have launched a "Know your data" campaign in the UK to enable people to write to their telecommunications providers asking for details of records held on them. The campaign provides three models letters to be sent to providers. See - Privacy International: "Know your data" campaign

From Privacy International:

"Many of the companies that supply Britain’s communications services – the landline services, cable companies, mobile operators and Internet Service Providers – are accumulating a vast amount of personal information about their customers. This “communications data”, which is currently stored for up to seven years, may relate to all the calls you have made and that you received, who you are in contact with, the geographic location of your mobile calls, the emails you have sent and which you received, the websites you have visited, the television programmes you have watched, personal financial data and other personal information about you and your family.

Combined, this extraordinary array of data creates a comprehensive dossier on the contacts, friendships, interests, transactions, movements and personal information of almost everyone in the UK.

Communications providers do not need to retain all this information, but many of them are doing so as a result of negotiations with the government. Law enforcement, investigative and national security organisations have argued for years that the data is useful to detect, prevent or prosecute criminal activity. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, passed in the months following the September 11th attacks, gives the government power to require companies to keep this information if the companies already retain it for business purposes. While these rules are being settled, the vast data reserves of an undisclosed number of companies have been placed at the disposal of government. BT (to give just one example) has fully automated its service to government to the point where any information on any BT customer going back seven years can be obtained by any authorised government agency merely by sending an email. 02 also keeps its data for up to seven years. Details of hundreds of thousands of consumers involving millions of communications are surrendered each year by communications providers.

This activity has occurred for years without legal authority and in violation of the Data Protection Act. The Home Office attempted in 2002 to authorise under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 an even more extensive list of public authorities who could access this communications data, but following a public outcry was forced to temporarily withdraw the proposal. This unprecedented access would have been available – as indeed it is currently - without any judicial oversight. The Home Office is now consulting over these issues before taking further action, but the two consultation documents it has published indicate that the current surveillance regime is likely to be made universal.

So far as the vast majority of providers are concerned, the only issue to be resolved is the level of subsidy that should be offered by the government for access to their customers' information. The negotiations have been in progress for more than three years. The communications providers have complained constantly to government that the cost of providing this information is greater than the level of subsidy offered to them. They have said little or nothing about the privacy rights of their customers. And yet, for years, they have acted illegally by retaining and disclosing their customers' information.

These activities and negotiations take place in secret. Scrutiny and oversight of this substantial surveillance operation has not been put in place. The government suggests in its current consultation that oversight will be given to an official called the “Interception of Communications Commissioner”, Sir Swinton Thomas. Read his correspondence with Privacy International’s Director, Simon Davies, and judge for yourself whether his Office is a
suitable safeguard.

Precise information about the existence or the nature of data is not made known to the public. If you exercise your legal rights to ask your communications provider for a copy of the information they hold on you, they will invariably withhold some of the data, stall the request, or lie outright about the information they are retaining.

Privacy International believes that the privacy rights of customers should have been respected both by government and by the companies. We see the current arrangement as a collusion of interests that will ultimately expose the most intimate details of people’s lives.

We have created this campaign to help UK consumers retrieve the information that is held about them. We hope that in so doing, all of us will learn a great deal more about this covert activity. It is also likely that the exercise of our data protection rights will send a clear signal to communications providers and to government that people have a high regard for their right to privacy.

Model Form Letters

The following letters are models for consumers to obtain their records from telecommunications companies under the Data Protection Act 1998. You should modify them accordingly to include your personal and account information and cut and paste the address for the company you are writing. You may have to include elements from more than one if you receive multiple services from one company. If your provider is not listed, your most recent bill should include an address to send the request to. The companies can charge a maximum of £10 for responding to your request so for quickest processing, you should include a £10 cheque with the letter.

1. Model letter for obtaining your personal information from your mobile phone company
2. Model letter for obtaining your personal information from your Internet Service Provider
3. Model letter for obtaining your personal information from the company that provides your standard telephone service

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