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Wednesday, 12 June, 2002, 01:25 GMT 02:25 UK
'Snoop' plans raise privacy fears
EasyEverything internet cafe
Destination of e-mails and mobile calls under scrutiny
Moves to let a new raft of UK Government agencies and local councils delve into people's e-mail and telephone records have prompted new privacy fears.

MPs are to debate plans which would expand the list of organisations allowed access to records showing who people are e-mailing and telephoning.

Practically every public servant will be able to play this game

John Wadham
Currently, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act passed two years ago, only police forces, the intelligence services, customs and excise and the Inland Revenue can demand these records.

Under the proposed changes, the power would be expanded to seven Whitehall departments, every local council and public organisations such as NHS bodies and the Food Standards Agency, says the Guardian newspaper.

The Home Office says these organisations can already ask telephone and internet companies to provide the records "voluntarily" and argues the change would actually mean tighter regulation.

'Stringent safeguards'

Now those agencies would be able to compel the companies to handover such information.

But a Home Office spokeswoman said: "It is important to point to the stringent safeguards."

The agencies included on the new list would be allowed to demand from telephone companies, internet providers and post firms details about:

  • Source and destination of e-mails
  • What websites people visit
  • Mobile phone data showing where a user was at a certain time
The Home Office stresses that the bodies can only ask for the information for specific purposes, such as national security, public safety, preventing death or injury or collecting taxes.

Officials say the moves are not a reaction to the US terror attacks. But civil liberty groups called the plan an invasion of every citizen's privacy.

"I am appalled at the huge increase in the scope of government snooping," said Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

"Two years ago we were deeply concerned these powers were to be given to the police without any judicial oversight.

"Now they're handing them out to a practically endless queue of bureaucrats in Whitehall and town halls."

The government came up against strong opposition last year when it wanted to increase police access to private e-mail records.

Limiting that access was one concession Home Secretary David Blunkett had to make to get that legislation through Parliament.

Press muzzle

John Wadham, director of Liberty, told the Guardian newspaper: "This list demonstrates an issue that many people may not have realised.

"It is not just the police who will be looking at our communication records; it is practically every public servant who will be able to play this game."

Editors are also believed to be concerned that the extended list could undermine investigative journalism.

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, told the newspaper: "The more we widen these powers, the propensity becomes much greater for people to misuse them to find out where a journalist is getting material for a critical story."

If the draft order is passed by Parliament, the law would come into effect in August.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"Some fear it could end up in the wrong hands"

E-mail snoops
Is your privacy being invaded?
See also:

11 Jun 02 | UK Politics
31 May 02 | Science/Nature
22 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
30 May 02 | Science/Nature
05 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
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