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Email and web monitoring laws 'to be brought in soon'

The Home Office says new laws to allow the monitoring of all emails, texts and web use in the UK will be brought in "as soon as parliamentary time allows".

The statement comes despite widespread criticism of plans to allow GCHQ "real time" access to communications data.

In a further sign of a determination to push on with the plan, Home Secretary Theresa May said "ordinary people" would have nothing to fear.

But "criminals, paedophiles and terrorists" would, she told the Sun.

She said the idea was to update legislation to stop them being able to cover their tracks and "keep their communication secret".

"There are no plans for any big government database... only suspected terrorists, paedophiles or serious criminals will be investigated," she wrote in the newspaper.

'Gangland thugs'
MPs from all sides of the House of Commons have warned against the plan to force internet service providers to install hardware tracking telephone and website use.

Mrs May said that at the moment phone records are often used to solve crimes - including child murderer Ian Huntley, as well as the "gangland thugs who gunned down Rhys Jones", the 11-year-old shot dead in Liverpool.

But the Home Office says changes are needed to ensure that communication using social media and internet phone services such as Skype can also be recorded.

Attempts by the last Labour government to create a giant central database containing all UK web and telephone use were dropped after huge opposition, including from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

'Nation of suspects'
Instead internet service providers have had to keep details of users' web access, email and internet phone calls for 12 months under an EU directive from 2009.

Although the content of the calls themselves is not kept, the sender, recipient, time of communication and geographical location does have to be recorded.

The proposed new law - which may be announced in the Queen's Speech in May - would reportedly allow GCHQ to access that data as it happens, without a warrant, rather than retrospectively.

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There needs to be some recognition that this additional data will be a honey pot as it will reveal the browsing habits of celebrities, politicians, etc”

Dominic RaabConservative MP

David Davis, the Conservative MP and former shadow home secretary, countered Mrs May's argument in the Sun: "We already have a law which lets the secret services eavesdrop on suspected criminals and terrorists.

"The new law does not focus on terrorists or criminals. It would instead allow civil servants to monitor every innocent, ordinary person in Britain, and all without a warrant.

"If they want to see all this information they should be willing to put their case before a judge or magistrate. This will force them to focus on the real terrorists rather than turning Britain into a nation of suspects."

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham's office has said the case for retaining such data had yet to be made.

A briefing paper on the issue in October 2010, obtained by Conservative MP Dominic Raab, said: "There needs to be some recognition that this additional data will be a honey pot as it will reveal the browsing habits of celebrities, politicians, etc."

'China and Iran'
It suggested that a new offence, possibly attracting a custodial sentence, could be created to punish any wrongful disclosure.

Critics have warned that any new law could end up being used more widely than originally intended - similar to the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which has been used, not just to tackle serious crime by police but also been by local authorities to check on children's school catchment areas.

The information commissioner said public bodies not involved in dealing with serious crime or national security, such as the Department for Work and Pensions, should have to apply to a court before access was granted.

The plans have been criticised by civil liberties groups and several Conservative backbenchers.

Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, called the move "an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran".

Mr Raab said it was "a plan to privatise Big Brother surveillance" and turned every individual "into a suspect".

'Saving lives'
When Labour attempted to push for similar changes, the Conservative shadow home secretary at the time, Chris Grayling, said the government had "built a culture of surveillance which goes far beyond counter-terrorism and serious crime".

But Lord Carlile, the former official reviewer of terrorism legislation, said that "having come into government, the coalition parties have realised this kind of material has potential for saving lives, preventing serious crime and helping people to avoid becoming victims of serious crime".

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the police and security services had to be able to keep up with new technology, but there must be "clear checks and balances" on what they were able to do and "strong safeguards to protect people's privacy".

Even if the move is announced in the Queen's Speech, any new law would still have to make it through Parliament, potentially in the face of opposition in both the Commons and the Lords.

The Internet Service Providers' Association said any change in the law must be "proportionate, respect freedom of expression and the privacy of users".





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