UK law enforcement and investigative agencies are forcing communications providers to hand over around one million customer records each year, Privacy International claimed on Wednesday.
The human rights group has calculated that this means almost a billion individual pieces of data are being released to organisations such as the police. This includes details of an estimated one hundred million phone calls, plus logs of email and Internet activity, possibly going back many years.
There are deep concerns that this information could be used to construct a dossier of an individual's movements, friendships and transactions.
Privacy International is urging the UK public to contact their communications operators to find out how much data is being stored about them. This move, the organisation believes, should help to establish how much information is kept in customer records and could also encourage greater respect for privacy.
"We hope that in so doing, all of us will learn a great deal more about this covert activity," explained Simon Davies, Privacy International's director.
"It is also likely that the exercise of our data protection rights will send a clear signal to communications providers and to the government that people have a high regard for their right to privacy," Davies added.
Further details about this campaign, launched at a public meeting to discuss data retention and access on Wednesday, can be found at Privacy International's Web site.
Privacy International's figures were compiled from estimates supplied by the Home Office and ministerial statements, plus input from legal experts, communications operators and the All Party Internet Group of MPs.
According to Privacy International, the seizing of such personal information is in clear defiance of the Data Protection Act. The Home Office is currently consulting over whether the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) should be extended to allow more government bodies to access such details.
Privacy advocates fear that -- despite an outcry last year -- these existing surveillance powers will be extended.
Internet service providers are concerned about the implications of such a move, though, both from a legal point of view and because of the cost of storing very large amounts of data for many years.