Government officials say the new powers are critical to countering terrorism and other threats in an era of fast-changing social media, with criminals using even seemingly innocent venues such as Facebook and online games as means of communication. But furious citizen groups and some members of Parliament see the push as a part of Britain’s evolution into a “surveillance society” in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the 2005 London bombings.
Although the plan is yet to be fully outlined by the Conservative-led government, observers say parts of it may go beyond even the ability of officials in the United States to quickly access private data. Critics say the sheer breadth and scope of the plan also could put Britain out in front of other European countries such as Germany, where the government acts to block some Web sites deemed objectionable, and Sweden, where a law passed in 2008 allows the government to intercept international communications conducted via phones or the Internet.
“I’m afraid that if this program gets introduced, the U.K. will be leapfrogging Iran in the business of surveilling its citizens,” said Eric King, head of research at Privacy International. “This program is so broad that no other country has even yet to try it, and I am dumbfounded they are even considering it here.”
The plan may authorize the national surveillance agency — which is known as GCHQ and whose Web site describes its mission as keeping “our society safe and successful in the Internet age” — to order the installation of thousands of devices linked to the networks of Internet service providers, giving agents broader access to everyday communications. The examination of the contents of those exchanges — such as the text or images contained in an e-mail — would still require special warrants.
But for the first time, intelligence agencies might, for instance, access information such as the times, destinations and frequencies of phone calls, texts and e-mails without a warrant. They could also use collected data to track worrisome Internet patterns in a bid to expose terrorist cells, pedophilia rings and other lawbreakers, according to sources briefed on the proposal, which came to light after a report this weekend in London’s Sunday Times.
The measure reportedly would compel communications companies to grant intelligence agents instant access to real-time information in certain circumstances, such as data that could be used to target the location of a user’s mobile phone or computer if authorities suspected a crime was in progress. It remained unclear whether British authorities would need judicial or other authority before accessing such data.