Ministers are considering a £12 billion plan to monitor the e-mail, telephone and internet browsing records of every person in Britain.
By Nick Allen | The huge eavesdropping programme would involve the creation of a mammoth central computer database to store hundreds of billions of individual pieces of communications traffic.
Supporters say it would become one of the security services’ most comprehensive tools in the fight against terrorism but critics described it as “sinister”.
MI5 currently has to apply to the Home Secretary for warrants to intercept specific email and website traffic but, under the new plan, internet and mobile phone networks could be monitored live by GCHQ, the Government listening post.
The Home Office said no decision had been taken but security officials claim live monitoring is necessary to pick up terrorist plots.
It would allow them to capture records like chat room discussions on password-protected Islamic extremist websites.
The annual number of phone calls and other electronic communications in the UK is predicted to nearly double from 230 billion in 2006 to 450 billion by 2016.
Last year 57 billion text messages, or 1,800 a second, were sent. That rose from one billion in 1999.
The number of broadband internet connections rose from 330,000 in 2001 to 18 million last year. Three billion e-mails are sent every day, or 35,000 every second.
One of the spurs for a central database is a concern over how that electronic communications data is currently stored by hundreds of different internet service providers and private telephone companies.
Records may only be held for limited periods of time and are then lost which makes it impossible for police and the security services to establishing historical links, or so-called “friendship trees”, between terrorists.
If all communications information was centrally stored then links could be made between terrorist cells and other sympathisers could be identified.
The telephone and internet companies are currently required to give records of calls or internet use to law enforcement agencies if a senior officer authorises that it is needed for an inquiry.
Last year there were more than half a million such requests.
The cost of monitoring everything, and keeping it on a central database, has been estimated at £12 billion and would dwarf the proposed cost of the identity cards programme.
Critics also claim it would be virtually impossible to keep such a vast system secure and free from abuse by law enforcement agencies.
Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said: “It would mark a substantial shift in the powers of the state to obtain information on individuals.
“Given the Government’s poor record on protecting data, and seeing how significant an increase in power this would be, we need to have a national debate and the Government would have to justify its need.”
The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has already called for a public debate about Government proposals for the state to retain people’s internet and phone records.
A spokesman for the commissioner said: “He warned that it is likely that such a scheme would be a step too far for the British way of life. Proposals that threaten such intrusion into people’s lives must be properly debated.”
Richard Clayton, a security expert at Cambridge University, said the proposal would mean installing thousands of probes in telephone and computer networks which would re-route data to the central database.