Coalition accused of 'state snooping' over security measures

Nigel Morris,Deputy Political Editor
Friday 22 October 2010 00:00 BST

Ministers provoked a civil liberties storm last night after reviving Labour's "Big Brother" plans to track details of every phone call, email and website visit in Britain.

The Conservative-LibDem coalition was accused of sanctioning "state snooping" into private lives – just months after both parties noisily denounced the last government's controversial plans.

Police and the security services insist that the power is essential in the fight against terrorism and organised crime. They argue that conspirators are increasingly turning to new forms of communications such as internet chatrooms to hatch plots.

Under the new proposals, details of when, and to whom, a phone call was made or a text message was sent – but not its contents – will be retained for at least 12 months.

Similarly records of when and to whom emails were sent would be held, along with information about internet browsing habits. The project has been given the go-ahead, despite its estimated cost of £2bn over the next 10 years.

Ministers have ruled out Labour's controversial plans to hold the information on a giant central database.

They are expected to propose that communications companies store the details, but are obliged to hand them over as part of criminal investigations.

Isabella Sankey, director of policy at Liberty, said: "Any move to amass more of our sensitive data and increase powers for processing would amount to a significant U-turn.

"The terrifying ambitions of a group of senior Whitehall technocrats must not trump the personal privacy of law-abiding Britons."

Phil Booth, the national co-ordinator of NO2ID, said: "One of the first and clear promises the coalition promises – and of both parties in opposition – was to stop the blanket retention of our communications data.

"This is state snooping into what we read on the web and who we speak to. They have broken their promises."

Gordon Brown set out plans in February 2008 to create the database under the so-called Intercept Modernisation Programme. It was suggested that GCHQ might hold the records, leading to warnings that the intelligence services might be tempted to mount "fishing expeditions" through the records.

The Independent disclosed last year that the last government was considering retaining data from activity on social-networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo.

The data retention plans were widely condemned, with the Liberal Democrats condemning it as an "Orwellian step too far" while the Tories protested that the Brown government had not made the case for a "massive increase in state acquisition, sharing and retention of data".

The proposal was eventually shelved in the face of the outcry and protests from communications companies that it was technically complicated.

But it was quietly reactivated in the fine print of the Government's strategic defence and security review published on Monday.

The review said: "Communications data provides evidence in court to secure convictions. It has played a role in every major security service counter-terrorism operation and in 95 per cent of serious organised crime investigations."

The Home Office is understood to have allocated cash in its budget to pay for the scheme, which will require legislation. Critics will question the priorities of the department which suffered a 23 per cent cut to funding in the spending review.

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