By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Snooping powers given to more than 600 public bodies look set to create a small industry of private firms that will help process requests for information about who people call, the websites they visit and who they swap e-mail with.
Early proposals to grant snooping powers came under fire
Some firms are already marketing their services to the agencies granted the snooping powers under the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
One firm, called Singlepoint, has been specifically created to act as a middleman between the bodies that want access to data and the net service providers and phone operators that hold it.
Civil liberty groups said they were worried about the emergence of such firms and said the government must police them closely to ensure that access to sensitive information was not abused.
Watch the watchers
The new snooping powers and the rules governing how they can be used came into force on 5 January and have prompted some firms to take advantage of the new demand for data requests.
"We saw an opportunity for a business or a facility that could provide secure processing for the data requests that will come out of this legislation," said a Singlepoint spokesman.
He said without Singlepoint it would be more difficult and costly for public authorities to request data as they would have to set up relationships with all of the UK's communication service providers.
Instead, he said, Singlepoint was setting up a system that would automatically route requests for information to relevant net or phone firms.
The police make most requests for data about phone and net users
He added that this system would ensure that all requests were submitted properly and would help government watchdogs policing RIPA requests for data.
"One of the advantages we can offer is transparency and auditability for them to check any part of the process at any time," he said.
The Interception Commissioner is charged with making sure that RIPA powers are not abused.
The Home Office estimates that up to 500,000 requests per year are made for information about who pays for a particular phone or web account. About 90% of these requests are for subscriber information.
Singlepoint estimates that there could be millions of requests per year.
Most of these requests are made by the police but approximately 4% are made by the many public authorities that have had new powers granted under RIPA.
A Home Office spokesman said that there were likely to be more companies like Singlepoint that set themselves up to act as middlemen.
Other firms are starting to set themselves up as trainers for people within public bodies involved with investigations.
The act demands that public bodies appoint single points of contact that will co-ordinate all requests under RIPA.
It is estimated that more than 3,000 people will be designated as these single points of contact and all must go through training programmes to ensure they understand RIPA rules.
A spokesman for the Focus Group said its training materials were currently being evaluated by the Home Office and soon it hoped to be offering courses to public authorities.
Public bodies can find out who pays the bill
He said the Home Office was keen to get firms offering courses because the police did not have the resources to take on the training of these public body workers itself.
Bodies granted snooping powers include the Serious Fraud Office, all local authorities and councils plus other organisations such as the Charity Commission and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.
When proposals to grant these snooping powers were first aired in mid-2002 they were greeted with alarm by privacy advocates and civil liberty groups.
A campaign co-ordinated by the FaxYourMP website prompted the government to withdraw its proposals.
However, following a consultation exercise the proposals were resurrected and the powers granted in a series of statutory instruments issued in November 2003.
Danny O'Brien, of net lobby group Stand, said it would prefer if the police were the only ones with powers to get data from phone and net service firms.
"We definitely want some public oversight over how much power to look into private files these groups have," he said.