David Davis attacks plans to monitor online messages as 'an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people'

  • 'Listening' agency at GCHQ will be able to monitor who you contact
  • Similar legislation was thrown out when Labour proposed it in 2006
  • Civil liberties campaigners said the measures would see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance that takes place in China and Iran

Former Conservative shadow Home Secretary David Davis has launched a blistering attack on fresh plans to increase internet surveillance.

The Coalition is reviving Labour's ill-fated scheme to snoop on all British citizens online – despite the fact that it was opposed by Liberal Democrats and Conservatives when in Opposition.

But outspoken backbencher Mr Davis - once a contender for the leadership of the party - described the move as 'an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary people'.

'It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals, it is absolutely everybody,' Mr Davis told the BBC.

Unnecessary: Conservative backbencher David Davis said the move will increase the ability of the state to 'snoop on ordinary people'

'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, civilised society.'

Mr Davis said he had no plans to repeat his 2008 move to resign his seat and fight a by-election to highlight civil liberties issues - insisting this was a particular proposal, as opposed to the broad-based threat to civil liberties four years ago.

All conversations over the internet and emails could be recorded if Government plans for a massive expansion in surveillance get the go ahead.

Under the new law, internet service providers will be asked to keep records of all emails, messages on social networking sites and conversations over Skype.

Being watched: Internet companies will have to install hardware to give the Government greater access to online communications data

Content of the calls or messages will be recorded, but the authorities will have to obtain a court order if they want to listen to or read the content.

However, the police and security services will be able to demand details of who the communication is between and what time it is taking place without a court order.

The plans, which have been confirmed by the Home Office, will allow GCHQ, the Government's eavesdropping centre, to monitor on demand every phone call, text, email and website accessed in real time.

The 'snoopers' charter' is set to be included in the Queen's Speech on May 9.

Ministers will argue that the sweeping powers are needed to catch terrorists and serious criminals. But civil liberties campaigners said the measures would see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance that takes place in China and Iran.

Labour tried to introduce a central database to track all phone, text, email and internet use in 2009, but it was ditched after mobile phone operators and internet companies refused to foot the bill.

In 2008, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg attacked the then Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown over the plans. He said: 'It is this government that has turned the British public into the most spied upon the planet – 1,000 surveillance requests every day, one million innocent people on the DNA database and 5,000 schools now fingerprinting our children.'

Last year Mr Clegg also unveiled the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which pledged to put 'traditional British freedoms at the heart of the Whitehall agenda'.

In Opposition, the Conservatives also pledged to cut down on intrusion into private lives. The party's manifesto said that 'wherever possible, personal data should be controlled by individual citizens'.

Nick Pickles, director of the Big Brother Watch campaign group, said: 'This is an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran.

'This is an absolute attack on privacy online and it is far from clear this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet businesses.'

He added: 'No amount of scare-mongering can hide the fact that this policy is being condemned by MPs in all political parties.

'The Government has offered no justification for what is unprecedented intrusion into our lives, nor explained why promises made about civil liberties are being casually junked.

'The silence from Home Office ministers has been deafening. It is remarkable that they wish to pry into everything we do online but seem intent on avoiding any public discussion.'

'Listening' agency: GCHQ, in Cheltenham, where Government surveillance workers will be able to trace who you contact, how often and for how long

Isabella Sankey, director of policy at pressure group Liberty, said: 'Whoever is in government the grand snooping ambitions of security agencies don't change.

'The Coalition agreement explicitly promised to “end unnecessary data retention” and restore our civil liberties.'

The move is likely to prove explosive within the Coalition, with many libertarian Tories and Liberal Democrat backbenchers poised to oppose the move.

The Government’s former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation Lord Carlile said he expected Parliament to demand strict safeguards on any new powers.

But he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the proposals were about updating existing regulations.

He said: 'There is nothing new about this. The previous government intended to take similar steps and they were heavily criticised by the coalition parties.

'But having come into government, the coalition parties have realised this kind of material has potential for saving lives, preventing serious crime and helping people to avoid becoming victims of serious crime.

'Parliament will apply the most anxious scrutiny to any proposed legislation of this kind.

'We are talking about the updating of existing practices.

'Intrusive': Internet users in Beijing, where strict measures allow the government to monitor and control online communications. Privacy campaigners have compared Britain's new laws to such tactics

'When I was independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, I looked at this issue for the last government and I suggested there should be an independent board which scrutinised all this activity and ensured it was not simply the police or the security services that makes these decisions but they were properly, independently monitored - and that is what I expect Parliament to demand.

'There is actually very little, if any, evidence known to me to show current powers have been used improperly.

'I agree we do need to ensure there is proper independent scrutiny, maybe of a much more substantial kind than exists at the moment to ensure these powers, when they are used, they are used proportionately. What we have to protect the public from is arbitrary action by the Government or any government authority.'

A source close to Mr Clegg said no actual database was planned.

A Home Office spokesman last night insisted the plans would go ahead as soon as Parliamentary time allowed.

'It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public,' he said. 'We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes.'

Speaking on a visit to a Job Centre in east London, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: 'I am totally opposed to the idea of governments reading people’s emails 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.

'I am totally opposed to it as a Liberal Democrat and someone who believes in people’s privacy and civil liberties.

'All we are doing is updating 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 emails.'

But the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned that the Government’s plans 'would potentially be incompatible with the right to privacy of many ordinary people in the UK'.

A spokeswoman said: 'The commission’s own research last year into information privacy concluded that there was a lack of proper regulatory oversight and too much conflicting legislation, all of which fails to provide adequate protection for citizens and their private information.

'We found that the way the Government and its agencies collect, use and store personal data is not respecting people’s right to privacy.

'However, because of the complexity of the current laws, obligations are unclear and authorities may be unaware they are breaking the law.

'These issues need properly addressing rather than introducing new proposals which further reduce people’s rights to privacy.'