updated 4/3/2012 9:51:20 AM ET 2012-04-03T13:51:20

A proposed law that would give government authorities in the United Kingdom the power to spy on citizens' private phone and Web communications has drawn criticism from British privacy activists and lawmakers.

Scheduled to be introduced in Parliament this year, the law would allow authorities to force Internet service providers (ISPs) to install hardware enabling the government's communications-monitoring agency, GCHQ, to intercept and examine people's real-time private communications  without obtaining a warrant, The Sunday Times of London reported on April 1.

An online civil-liberties group, Big Brother Watch, called it "an unprecedented step" that would "see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance as China and Iran."

"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," wrote Big Brother Watch's Emma Carr in a blog posting.

Prime Minister David Cameron's office said the law would help government agencies stay ahead of potential threats spread through social networking channels and newer technologies such as Skype.

Cameron's government insists that the proposed law would let authorities see real-time information about the sender/caller and the recipient or recipients of a email, Skype call, text message, or social-media posting — but not the actual contents of the communication. The government would have to get a warrant to examine the contents.

"[The proposal] 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," said a statement by the Home Office, the government department responsible for domestic security, according to The New York Times. (The statement was not available on the Home Office website.)

[10 Ways the Government Watches You]

But not everyone supports the proposed law.

"There is likely to be widespread anger about the proposals, from civil liberties groups, Internet companies, the online community and politicians (who will fear that backing the plans may hurt them in the ballot box), believing that surveillance in the U.K. has gone too far," Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant from the security firm Sophos, wrote.

That anger and opposition has already been voiced by lawmaker David Davis, who told The New York Times that the plan would give the government intrusive powers into what should be private.

"It is not focusing on terrorists or criminals," Davis told the New York Times. "It is absolutely everybody. Historically, governments have been kept out of our private lives."

Davis called the proposed law "an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary innocent people in vast numbers."

He added citizens' 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."

Much of what the British government is demanding in the new proposal is already available to it, so it's not clear why a new law would be needed.  In the United States, authorities often ask cellular carriers, Internet service providers and online service providers such as Google or Yahoo for similar information, with varying success.

The Justice Department, for example, is currently asking Google to unlock a convicted pimp's Android smartphone to prove he was running a prostitution ring while under house arrest.

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