The UK government has revealed plans to extend the range of officials
allowed to snoop on people by accessing their email and phone records.
Privacy campaigners say they are "appalled".
The powers, set out in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, were
originally drafted two years ago, to help the police, customs, the secret
services and tax inspectors fight "serious crime". They give officials the
power to demand detailed information on individuals from telecoms and
internet service providers.
This could include their names and addresses, details of phone calls and
emails they had made and received, of websites they have visited, and even
an individual's whereabouts at a given time - based on which transmitter their
mobile phone was nearest to.
Under the new proposals, being voted on by MPs next Tuesday, these
powers will be extended to included quangos, local authorities, almost every
government department and even Consignia, the postal service.
"Two years ago, we were deeply concerned that these powers were to be
given to the police without any judicial oversight," says, says Ian Brown,
director of the think-tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research.
"Now they're handing them out to a practically endless queue of bureaucrats
in Whitehall and town halls."
Richard Clayton, a computer scientist at Cambridge University, explains why
the proposed new powers could be useful: "If you can track a mobile you
can prove people are cohabiting," he says. This information could help
officials at the Child Support Agency.
If approved, the new rules could come into effect as early as September.
Brown says he is "appalled" that the government has rescinded on its
promise that the powers agreed in 2000 would only be used to fight serious
It remains to be seen what level of official will be able to access this
information, and what criteria they will need to establish in order to show
that they have a genuine reason for requesting the information.
Checks in place at the moment require only that the information requested
be "necessary and proportionate".
"It's entirely woolly," says Clayton. "You need checks on this otherwise
we're moving towards a surveillance state."
It seems likely that each department will set its own criteria, says Brown.
John Wadham of Liberty says he is "very concerned" about these new
measures and is worried about the prospect of public authorities being able to
access innocent people's private information for relatively trivial reasons.
Last month the European Parliament passed a motion to allow governments
to demand that telecoms and ISPs retain their records for an unspecified
time. But so far no other free country has such far-reaching data collection
powers. "We are a world leader in this," says Clayton.