Despite a barrage of criticisms from civil liberties groups concerning the legalities of data retention, the Charity Commission (CC) today defended its power to keep communications data, claiming it had proved vital in a number of investigations.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa), government bodies were given a more open framework to get hold of stored data. Proposals to extend this power to more government departments were withdrawn after a flood of complaints. However, the legal requirements for data-holding ISPs and telcos, as well as which bodies should be given access to the data, are still under consultation.

But the Charity Commission insists its current powers under Ripa — to view stored data — are vital to its role, adding that "in appropriate circumstances, access to [such] information has proved an extremely effective tool in our investigations into fraudulent fund raising or the misapplication of charitable assets."

The CC highlighted examples where mobile phones had been purchased for charitable use but were in fact being used by the trustees for personal calls. Its 'viewing' powers allow it to trace the identity of the owner, thereby protecting the charitable funds.

But one of the most vocal anti-retention groups has been Privacy International. It claims that landline service providers, mobile operators, cable companies and ISPs are accumulating a vast amount of information about their customers.

In its Scrambling for Safety meeting this week, the group went so far as to assert that certain industry groups had been 'illegally' retaining data for the past several years, which would be a severe breach of the Data Protection Act.

"These activities and negotiations take place in secret. Scrutiny and oversight of this substantial surveillance operation have not been put in place," said the group's statement.

However, the CC claims that reducing its existing powers would impede it in its job. The Commission said it did not wish to increase its powers, but simply to be part of the consultation process "to develop a more transparent and accountable framework".

The consultation process ends of 3 June when the government will have to decide not only who should have access to stored data, but also what should be stored, for how long and at what cost.