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Backlash rises over British plan to bolster eavesdropping

Critics include lawmakers from ruling coalition

Nick Clegg, Britain’s deputy prime minister, said the government wouldn’t read e-mails ‘at will.’

LONDON - British lawmakers and rights activists joined a chorus of protest Monday against plans by the government to give the intelligence and security services the ability to monitor the phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and Internet use of every person in the country.

In a land where tens of thousands of surveillance cameras attest to claims by privacy advocates that Britain is the Western world’s most closely monitored society, the proposal has compounded arguments that its citizens live under what critics call an increasingly intrusive “nanny state.’’

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The debate in recent years has pitted those who justify greater scrutiny by reference to threats of terrorism and organized crime against those who cleave to traditional notions of individual privacy. But the current proposal would raise the question of how security agencies can keep track of a proliferation of newer technologies such as Skype, instant messaging, and social networking sites that permit instant communication outside more traditional channels.

“What we do need to make sure is that as technology changes we are able to maintain our current capability in this area,’’ a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules.

The Home Office said the new measures were vital to provide police and security services with “communications data to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.’’

Under the proposal, made public in The Sunday Times of London, a law to be introduced this year would allow the authorities to order Internet companies to install hardware enabling the government’s monitoring agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, to examine individual communications without a warrant.

A similar effort to enhance the authorities’ powers was made by the Labor government in 2006 but was abandoned after ferocious opposition, including from the two parties that now form the coalition government - the dominant Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats party - and are now reintroducing the same legislation.

Currently, government eavesdroppers and police need a warrant to monitor specific communications.

But the new system would permit the authorities to track communications data like “time, duration, and dialing numbers of a phone call or an e-mail address,’’ the Home Office said in a statement.

“It does not include the content of any phone call or e-mail, and it is not the intention of the government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications,’’ the statement said.

Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, defended the plan, saying he was “totally opposed to the idea of governments’ reading people’s e-mails at will or creating a new central government database.’’

“The point is, we are not doing any of that and I wouldn’t allow us to do any of that,’’ he said, arguing that the authorities wanted to update “the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to technology like Skype, which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those e-mails.’’

Opponents, like Conservative lawmaker David Davis, said the measures would give the authorities far greater powers to intrude into areas that have traditionally been private.

“It is not focusing on terrorists or criminals,’’ Davis said. “It is absolutely everybody. Historically, governments have been kept out of our private lives.’’

“Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts, by saying, ‘If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine; if it is a terrorist or a criminal, go and ask a magistrate and you’ll get your approval.’ You shouldn’t go beyond that in a decent, civilized society, but that is what is being proposed.’’

“This is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary, innocent people in vast numbers,’’ he said.

“The problem we have had in the past is this information has been leaked, lost, stolen,’’ said Malcolm Bruce, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament. “I think there would be very, very real concerns that it could be open to all kinds of abuse.’’

“We have had a situation where police have been selling information to the media,’’ he said, referring to testimony at a judicial inquiry into media ethics and practices. “I think we are in a very, very dangerous situation if too much information is being passed around unnecessarily.’’

Government Communications Headquarters is run in close collaboration with the National Security Agency in the United States.

It is one of three British intelligence agencies, along with the domestic MI5 security unit and the overseas MI6 secret intelligence service.

Its operations are conducted mainly from its headquarters near the spa town of Cheltenham, where most of its 5,500 staff members work, according to its website.

Information gathered by the agency has played a major part in the security service’s efforts to foil purported terrorist plots since the July 7, 2005, London bombings.

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