Britain is considering setting up a database of all phone and e-mail traffic in the country as part of a high-tech strategy to fight terrorism and crime, its top law-and-order official said Wednesday.
Opposition politicians and civil-liberties groups immediately condemned the idea, and the country's terrorism-law ombudsman said the government must not be allowed to set up a vast "data warehouse."
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said Britain's police and security services need new ways to collect and store records of phone calls, e-mails and Internet traffic.
Technological changes have created a "complex and fragmented" online world that meant information such as telephone billing data was not always retained, she said, adding that new measures would try to find "some way or other to collect that data and store it."
Her department, the Home Office, said one option being considered was a database that would store the phone numbers dialed, the Web sites visited and the e-mail addresses contacted by every one in Britain.
Officials stressed such a database would not store the content of phone calls or e-mails.
"There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your e-mails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online," Smith said.
Chris Huhne, domestic affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, accused the government of hatching "Orwellian plans for a vast database of our private communications."
Dominic Grieve, his counterpart for the main opposition Conservatives, called for "a full and proper debate" on the issue.
The civil-liberties group, Liberty, said there were "huge dangers" in collecting so much data about everyone in the country.
"The bigger the data haul, the greater the temptation to treat innocent habits as suspicious behavior," said the group's policy director, Gareth Crossman.
Lord Carlile, the government's independent reviewer of terrorism laws, said any new law must include strict limitations and protections against abuse. A 2006 European Union directive on storing communications data, signed by Britain, lays out safeguards including limits on who may access data and a requirement that the data be erased after two years if not needed for an investigation.
"This is not a simple subject and we need as much detail as possible as soon as possible," said Carlile. "The raw idea of government having a data warehouse is awful. That's why we need to have protections."
The government said the database was just one of several ideas being considered and said nothing would be drafted until after a public consultation next year.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — and especially since the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings that killed 52 commuters on London's transit system — the government has sought tougher powers for police and the security services, citing the threat from terrorist plots.
'Every right to be skeptical'
But government plans for tougher powers have met stiff opposition from human-rights groups, lawyers and even a growing number of members of the governing Labour Party. This week Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords, defeated government plans to increase from 28 to 42 days the length of time terrorist suspects may be held without charge. Opponents of the move included a former head of the domestic intelligence service and two former Labour attorneys general.
Human-rights groups claim Britain's 28-day pre-charge detention is already the longest in the Western world, and say Britons are among the world's most watched people, surveyed by a network of millions of closed circuit security cameras.
Trust in the government has also been hit by a series of lost data incidents. This week the Ministry of Defense acknowledged it had lost a computer hard drive that could contain personal information on 1.7 million recruits and people who had applied to join the armed forces. In November, a government department lost a disk that contained the names, addresses and bank details of 25 million people.
Smith expected people to have doubts about the proposal.
"Even if there had not been events," she said, referring to the data losses, "the British public would have every right to be skeptical about a state activity which involves the collection of data."