Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Wednesday, 13 August 2008 10:10 UK

Spy fear over e-mail check plan

A computer keyboard
Public bodies would be given more power to monitor web use

Plans to give local councils and other public bodies the power to monitor e-mail and internet traffic have been branded a "snoopers' charter".

The government wants to make it mandatory for phone and internet companies to store all information on personal web use for 12 months.

The plan - contained in a Home Office consultation paper - is aimed at making it easier to investigate serious crime.

But the Lib Dems and Tories say it will be used to spy on ordinary people.

It is already mandatory for telecommunications companies to keep records of mobile and landline traffic.

Internet data is also stored voluntarily by most companies but the government wants to make it mandatory to bring Britain into line with other EU states.

'Vital tool'

Investigators would be able to access the time, date and method of communications between suspects - but not the content of individual text messages or e-mails.

We will be told it is for use in combating terrorism and organised crime but... it will soon be used to spy on ordinary people's kids, pets and bins
Chris Huhne
Lib Dem home affairs spokesman

The Home Office says the new laws are needed to implement a European Directive - meaning the data will be available to investigators across Europe.

A Home Office spokesman said: "This data is a vital tool to investigations and intelligence gathering in support of national security and crime.

"Communications data allows investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time.

"It also gives investigators the potential to identify other forensic opportunities, identify witnesses and premises of evidential interest.

"Many alibis are proven or refuted through the use of communications data."

Serious crime

The government claims investigative opportunities will be lost if the directive is not implemented.

But critics claim that the powers will be used by public bodies such as councils for reasons other than tackling terrorism and serious crime.

Local authorities already routinely use powers brought in to tackle terrorism and serious crime to spy on people suspected of relatively minor offences such as noise nuisance or dog fouling.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) laws, councils can access phone and email records and use surveillance to detect or stop a criminal offence.

The Lib Dems and Tories argue that the new proposals will give officials even more power to snoop into people's lives.

Shadow home secretary Dominic Grieve said: "Yet again the government has proved itself unable to resist the temptation to take a power quite properly designed to combat terrorism to snoop on the lives of ordinary people in everyday circumstances."

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "Ministers have proven time and time again that they are not to be trusted with sensitive data, but they seem intent on pressing ahead with this snoopers' charter.

"We will be told it is for use in combating terrorism and organised crime but if Ripa powers are anything to go by, it will soon be used to spy on ordinary people's kids, pets and bins."

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