The Queen has formally unveiled government plans to step up police surveillance of people's activity on the internet, extending existing powers to cover social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
The government will introduce a bill to intercept a wider range of internet communications, including those on social networks, it announced in the Queen's speech.
A draft Communications Data Bill will allow police and intelligence agencies to get access to records of who has talked to whom on a range of web-based services, from social networks to instant messaging, and from providers such as Google and Skype.
The proposed measures, unveiled on Wednesday, are part of the Home Office's Communications Capabilities Development Programme and build on the authorities' current powers to examine email and text messages.
"My government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses," the Queen said in her speech at the opening of Parliament.
At the moment, the police can self-authorise to intercept and store information on who spoke with whom and timing for emails and phone-based communications.
Under the new plans, police will not be allowed to store the contents of messages and posts, but they will be able to request data on the participants, the time and length of the communication and the email address contacted. The plans call for web service providers to store this data on all communications for up to 12 months.
My government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data.– The Queen
A main element of the draft bill is to establish "an updated framework for the collection and retention of communications data by communication service providers", according to a document released by the Home Office alongside the Queen's speech.
In February, ISPs complained that government had not officially involved them in drawing up its plans to extend internet surveillance, even though the providers themselves would be responsible for handling the monitoring and storage. The costs involved for those companies include 'black box' equipment for intercepting communications, as well as the cost of updating algorithms regularly.
The draft clauses include measures designed to limit the disclosure of data and unauthorised access to records. The Interception of Communications Commissioner would oversee the collection of data by service providers, while the Investigatory Powers Tribunal would give people a place to complain about misuse of surveillance powers. The Information Commissioner's Office will review the draft proposals.
The proposed measures will give the police far more invasive surveillance capabilities, privacy technology expert Joss Wright of the Oxford Internet Institute said in a blog post.
"Despite any superficial similarities between old and new communication technologies, it is both disingenuous and dangerously simplistic to consider access to phone records as a useful analogy for making policy about combined access to email, web, social media and other internet traffic," Wright said. "The extent to which we use these new services is vastly greater, the information that they reveal about our habits and interactions greater still."
The coalition government hopes to see the legislation passed by the end of June 2015, according to Home Office documents published in January. When in opposition, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats pledged to reduce government surveillance of citizens, with the Liberals explicitly criticising Labour's Interception Modernisation Programme. The Labour plan, with tweaks, was formally resurrected in October 2010 by the coalition government.
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