All telecom companies and internet service providers will be required by law to keep a record of every customer’s personal communications, showing who they have contacted, when and where, as well as the websites they have visited.
Despite widespread opposition to the increasing amount of surveillance in Britain, 653 public bodies will be given access to the information, including police, local councils, the Financial Services Authority, the ambulance service, fire authorities and even prison governors.
They will not require the permission of a judge or a magistrate to obtain the information, but simply the authorisation of a senior police officer or the equivalent of a deputy head of department at a local authority.
Ministers had originally wanted to store the information on a single government-run database, but chose not to because of privacy concerns.
However the Government announced yesterday it was pressing ahead with privately held “Big Brother” databases that opposition leaders said amounted to “state-spying” and a form of “covert surveillance” on the public.
It is doing so despite its own consultation showing that it has little public support.
The Home Office admitted that only one third of respondents to its six-month consultation on the issue supported its proposals, with 50 per cent fearing that the scheme lacked sufficient safeguards to protect the highly personal data from abuse.
The new law will increase the amount of personal data that can be obtained by officials through the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which is supposed to be used for fighting terrorism.
Although most private firms already hold details of every customer’s private calls and emails for their own business purposes, most only do so on an ad hoc basis and only for a period of several months.
The new rules, known as the Intercept Modernisation Programme, will not only force communications companies to keep their records for longer, but to expand the type of data they keep to include details of every website their customers visit, effectively registering every online click.
While public authorities will not be able to view the contents of these emails or phone calls, they can see the internet addresses, dates, times and identify recipients of calls.
Firms involved in storing the data, including Orange, BT and Vodafone, will be reimbursed at a cost to the taxpayer of £2 billion over 10 years.
Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, said he had fears about the abuse of the data. He said: “The big danger in all of this is ‘mission creep’. This government keeps on introducing new powers to tackle terrorism and organised crime which end up being used for completely different purposes. We have to stop that from happening”.
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, added: “Whilst this is no doubt necessary in pursuing terrorist suspects, the proposals are so intrusive that they should be subject to legal approval, and should not be available except in pursuit of the most serious crimes.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office also opposed the moves.
“The Information Commissioner believes that the case has yet to be made for the collection and processing of additional communications data for the population as a whole being relevant and not excessive,” a spokesman said.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, has criticised the amount the scheme will cost for what he said is effectively “state spying”.
He added yesterday: “It is simply not that easy to separate the bare details of a call from its content. What if a leading business person is ringing Alcoholics Anonymous?”
Ministers said that they still have to work with the communications industry to find the correct way of framing the proposal in law — meaning it will not come before Parliament until after the general election. But the Home Office yesterday insisted it would push the legislation through. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, originally released a consultation paper in April.
Only 29 per cent of respondents supported the Government approach. Meanwhile the communications providers themselves questioned the cost of the scheme and whether it was even technically feasible.
John Yates, Britain’s head of anti-terrorism, has argued that the legislation is vital for his investigators.
David Hanson, the Home Office minister, said: “The consultation showed widespread recognition of the importance of communications data in protecting the public .. we will now work with communications service providers and others to develop these proposals, and aim to introduce necessary legislation as soon as possible.”