Lyle Brennan – Daily Mail April 1, 2012
The new legislation is expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next month, despite similar ‘Big Brother’-style laws being rejected six years ago.
Internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling GCHQ – the Government’s electronic ‘listening’ agency – to examine ‘on demand’ any phone call made, text message and email sent, and website accessed in ‘real time’.
Civil liberties campaigners expressed fears that this ‘unprecedented’ move will intrude on the lives of British citizens, with the measures being compared to strict controls currently exercised in China and Iran.
In 2006, Labour was forced to abandon similar plans in the face of fierce opposition from Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and privacy groups.
But now, the Sunday Times reports, the Home Office has confirmed coalition ministers intend to revive the move towards greater surveillance ‘as soon as parliamentary time allows’.
Although GCHQ would not be able to access the content of personal communications without a warrant, the legislation would enable it to trace the people individuals or groups are in contact with, and how often and for how long they are in communication.
Ministers claim it is essential that the police and security services have access to such data in order to tackle terrorism and protect the public
‘It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes,’ a spokesman said.
‘Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of Government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications.’
Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, said: ‘This is an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran.
‘This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses.
‘If this was such a serious security issue why has the Home Office not ensured these powers were in place before the Olympics?’
The Internet Service Providers’ Association, which counts Google, BT and Virgin Media among its 200 member organisations, was alarmed to see details of the proposals last month.
A senior industry figure told the Sunday Times internet companies were worried the measures would be expensive, intrusive and extremely problematic from a legal and practical perspective.
Current laws dictate that service providers must keep certain records of phone and electronic communications for a year, but changes could see this provision stretched to social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
GCHQ is already allowed to monitor the content of calls and emails sent by individuals under investigation, as long as ministers have given approval.
The Home Office stressed that, under the new laws, Government employees will still need a warrant to access the content of emails and calls.