Email spying 'could have stopped killers'
London Observer | July 10 2005
Millions of personal email and mobile phone records could be stored and shared with police and intelligence officials across Europe to help thwart terrorist attacks.
The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, will propose new measures at an emergency meeting of European Union interior ministers which will discuss the implications of Thursday's London bombings.
He raised the stakes dramatically by claiming they could 'quite possibly' have helped prevent such attacks, by identifying in advance suspicious patterns of behaviour by potential terrorists.
The move comes as The Observer can also reveal that the National Crime Squad has contacted internet service providers in the UK, appealing for them to preserve email messages in case they prove useful to the manhunt. The messages could include highly personal information.
Although police have no powers to force compliance, the memo sent last Thursday suggests it is 'likely that the perpetrators behind the multiple explosions in central London today have used telecommunications systems in the planning and execution of their act', and there was a risk of evidence being lost.
Clarke's proposals for an EU-wide agreement would stop short of such intrusion into the content of emails. But it would require the storing of revealing 'traffic data' - detailing who has called, or messaged whom, with times and locations - for several years, enabling individuals to be tracked across Europe and emerging networks of sympathisers to be monitored.
The Home Office is also pushing for tracking of lost or stolen explosives across the EU, to prevent terrorists getting access to the raw materials of bombs; access to EU databases by law enforcement agencies across the EU; and greater co-operation on tracking stolen passports, which can be used by terrorists to create new identities.
With emotions running high over the bombings, the move will trigger debate about the impact on civil liberties. However, he said Britain and Spain - which has backed the cause since the Madrid bombing - wanted it finalised by the end of the year.
'Terrorism today is by definition international: the more we can survey the way in which people operate, the way in which they make their phone calls, the better your chance of identifying patterns of behaviour which are a threat,' he said.
Asked if such measures would have helped prevent the London bombing, he said: 'I think it's quite possible, actually.'
Whitehall sources said intelligence services around the world had also been asked to share any 'chatter' about the bombing.
Clarke also pledged to review draft plans for a crackdown on so-called 'acts preparatory to terrorism' - expected to include new offences of associating with a known terror suspect, targeting terrorist sympathisers - to see whether further measures are required. A new counter-terrorism bill had been almost complete when the bombers struck.
Controversial plans to have suspected terrorists tried by a security-vetted judge and defence lawyer, who would secretly examine evidence submitted by the intelligence services and not seen by the defendant, are on hold. Clarke is said to regard it as too drastic a change to be introduced in the bill due in the autumn.
Both the Tories and Liberal Democrats said they would continue to oppose the identity cards legislation currently before the Commons, although privately Labour MPs admit the parliamentary revolt may now be diminished.
Clarke admitted he cannot claim that ID cards would have prevented the bombing, although he argues that in Spain, where they are compulsory, they helped trace the alleged perpetrators, via their mobile phones, which Spaniards can buy only after producing an ID card.
The data retention proposal would require the saving of millions of pages of personal information for several years: the exact amount of time would be agreed between EU member states, but the UK is thought to favour a minimum of five years. Similar proposals have been opposed by the EU in the past.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said some EU countries including Germany were likely to resist. 'There are some celebrated cases where we know, for example, that traffic data and mobile location has been useful to the police,' he said.
'But this is mass surveillance at its crudest.' It would lead to 'information overload', he said, stockpiling masses of useless information.
David Davis, the shadow home secretary, warned in an interview yesterday that civil liberties should not be sacrificed in the rush to defend Britain. 'The best defence of security is to have the liberties,' he said. 'The first act of the liberation fighter is to try to force the state to do repressive things, because when the state does repressive things it recruits your supporters.'
Sources close to Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said that his party would continue to defend civil liberties vigorously but responsibly. A source said: 'Everything is going to be influenced by what has happened, but the fundamental principles of civil liberties remain as ingrained as they ever were.'
Clarke, speaking before another meeting of the Cabinet emergency committee yesterday, said the first priority was the criminal investigation.
'The principal problem is getting forensic data that stacks up from the crime scenes themselves,' he said. 'They are appalling scenes and it is very difficult to get the material which can identify who committed these acts and why.'
He said nothing had been ruled in or out, including the possibility of a suicide bomber, and pledged 'a very close examination' of the handling of intelligence prior to the attack.
However, Downing Street sources stressed that the Prime Minister did not blame the intelligence services and said a formal inquiry into what went wrong was not a high priority: 'Although they will review the situation, their first task at the moment is to find out who did it.