Spy centre will track you on holiday
Some government officials fear it is a significant step towards a total surveillance society.
By David Leppard
THE government is building a secret database to track and hold the international travel records of all 60m Britons.
The intelligence centre will store names, addresses, telephone numbers, seat reservations, travel itineraries and credit card details for all 250m passenger movements in and out of the UK each year.
The computerised pattern of every individual’s travel history will be stored for up to 10 years, the Home Office admits.
The government says the new database, to be housed in an industrial estate in Wythenshawe, near Manchester, is essential in the fight against crime, illegal immigration and terrorism. However, opposition MPs, privacy campaigners and some government officials fear it is a significant step towards a total surveillance society.
Chris Grayling, shadow home secretary, said: “The government seems to be building databases to track more and more of our lives.
“The justification is always about security or personal protection. But the truth is that we have a government that just can’t be trusted over these highly sensitive issues. We must not allow ourselves to become a Big Brother society.”
Some immigration officials with knowledge of the plans admit there is likely to be public concern. “A lot of this stuff will have a legitimate use in the fight against crime and terrorism, but it’s what else it could be used for that presents a problem,” said one.
“It will be able to detect whether parents are taking their children abroad during school holidays. It could be useful to the tax authorities because it will tell them how long non-UK domiciled people are spending in the UK.”
The database is also expected to monitor people’s travel companions.
Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, defended the plans. “The UK has one of the toughest borders in the world and we are determined to ensure it stays that way. Our high-tech electronic borders system will allow us to count all passengers in and out and targets those who aren’t willing to play by our rules.”
In a report last week, the House of Lords constitution committee, whose members include Lord Woolf, the former lord chief justice, called for a significant cutback in the state’s surveillance powers.
It said Britain’s traditions of privacy and democracy were under threat from pervasive and routine electronic spying and the mass collection of personal information.
The Wythenshawe spy centre will house more than 300 police and immigration officers. A similar number of technicians will help check travellers’ details against police, MI5, benefit agency and other government “watch lists”.
The exact location of the new database is a secret within Whitehall, although Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, accidentally let slip during a public talk to officials late last year that it was in the Manchester area. All staff have now been instructed to refer to it only as “a new operations centre in the northwest”.
The database is the unpublicised part of the government’s so-called “e-borders” programme, intended to count everyone who comes in and out of the country by 2014. At the moment the UK Border Agency is running a pilot which monitors the travel movements of passengers on “high-risk” routes from a small number of airports, including Heathrow and Gatwick.
Some 70m passenger movements have been tracked to date, but this is expected to increase to 100m by the end of April. Officials hope that by the end of next year 95% of the 250m annual passenger movements will be logged in the database.
The origins of e-borders stem from 2005 when Tony Blair, then prime minister, was unable to say, during a television interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman, how many failed asylum seekers were in Britain.
Under the scheme, once a person buys a ticket to travel to or from the UK by air, sea or rail, the carrier will deliver that person’s data to the agency.
The data is then checked against various watchlists to identify those involved in abuse of UK immigration laws, serious and organised crime, and terrorism.
At the moment limited information about selected routes and travellers is kept on the pilot database run by the agency at an office in Hounslow, west London. In future, all such data will automatically be sent in bulk to the new database, instead of being released in response to specific requests by the authorities.
Lord Carlile, the government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, said privacy concerns had to be balanced against the need to gather intelligence on terrorism suspects. “Travel patterns are a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism,” he said.