News story

Communications data – the facts

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The facts about communications data.

What is it?

Communications data includes the time and duration of a communication,  the number or email address which has been contacted and sometimes the location of the originator of the communication.

What is it not?

Communications data does not include the content of any communication - the text of an email or a conversation on a telephone. It is information about a communication - not the communication itself.

Why is it important?

Communications data has played a role in every major Security Service counter-terrorism operation over the past decade and in 95 per cent of all serious organised crime investigations.  It is vital to law enforcement, especially when dealing with organised crime gangs, paedophile rings and terrorist groups.

It is used by the police and the security agencies in the investigation of all crimes, including terrorism. It enables the police to build a picture of the activities and contacts of a person who is under investigation.

How do the police get access to it?

Companies providing communications are required by law to collect and store communications data and have business reasons to do so.

The police and others can get access to communications data if they can demonstrate that it is necessary in a criminal investigation. Access is on a case by case basis and is subject to oversight. The police have no power to get access to communications data where it is not connected to a criminal investigation.

What is changing?

Communications technology and communication service are changing fast. Broadly, more communications are now taking place on the internet and fewer communications by phone. Communications data is harder to obtain because  for some services it is not collected and stored. 

Why are we considering legislation?

The government is considering legislation to ensure communications data is available in future as it has been in the past and that the police and agencies can continue to get access to it.  

The data would be available only to designated officers, on a case by case basis, authorised under the law and the process will be overseen by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, as it is now.

Any legislation will not…

  • provide the police and others with new powers or capabilities to intercept and read your emails and phone calls 
  • create a single government database containing your emails and phone calls to which the police and agencies can get unlimited and unregulated access
  • weaken current safeguards or checks in place to protect communications data
  • allow local authorities greater powers. In fact we are restricting local authority access to sensitive data through the Protection of Freedoms Bill - which will mean authorities will have to apply to magistrates for the first time to obtain certain types of data - a change which is new under this government