UK Politics

Q&A: UK plan to monitor all email, phone and web use

A guide to what we know about the government's plan to change the law so that there can be more monitoring of people's emails, phone calls and web usage in the UK.

What's the row about?

The government is considering including a bill in the Queen's Speech next month to extend the ability to monitor all phone calls, email and internet use in the UK. The Sunday Times reported that the idea is to allow GCHQ - the government's listening agency - to be able to access this information in "real time" and "on demand".

So it's a plan for a giant database?

The Home Office minister James Brokenshire says "absolutely not" and he insists that the content of the calls/emails will not be monitored - just where and when they were made/sent, and to whom. He says it's about updating the existing rules: "It is not about some new super-database or spying on the contents of everybody's communications."

So what exactly is the plan?

The details are still being finalised but it will extend the current rules which require mobile phone firms or internet service providers (ISPs) to hold details of who was communicating with whom, when and where. Brokenshire says the updating is "in terms of social media and new devices" - it is widely expected to include things like Facebook and phone calls via web-based systems such as Skype.

What about the 'real time' bit?

It has been reported that the idea is that ISPs would have to install hardware enabling GCHQ to access "on demand" communications data without a warrant. But the example given by the Home Office is if someone's lost on a mountain side and has to be traced by their mobile phone's location. Brokenshire says: "So there is some [real-time] communications data that can be effective but it has to be for a specific purpose like rescuing someone whose is life at risk... not as part of some general snooping exercise."

Can't they do that already?

Yes. If you get lost on a mountainside you can get rescued by your mobile phone's location being traced. But a request has to be made to the ISP or phone firm for the data. It's not clear what would be different.

What kind of oversight will there be?

At the moment communications data can be accessed by police, intelligence agencies or other public bodies without any external authorisation - simply by a senior official within the organisation signing off (although intercepting the actual content of communications requires a warrant, usually signed by the home secretary). One question being asked is what regime will govern access to communications data in the new system. Lord Carlile, the former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has suggested some kind of independent monitoring. Brokenshire says he believes "very strongly in freedom of speech, freedom of expression and a free and open internet" and any plans "will rightly be the subject of close scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament".

So will the government be able to read my Facebook conversations?

Brokenshire says it would be "disproportionate" to look at everyone's Facebook conversation, although the basic idea is to ensure that existing collection of data about phone calls, emails and web use is still sufficient given "the different ways people are communicating". The logic of this position is that the police or MI5 would be able to see who people were communicating with, and when, on social media sites. There is no suggestion yet that private messages on Facebook will be obtained without a court order - instead authorities would simply know Facebook had been visited.

Will my local council be able to find out about my web use?

At the moment there is a huge list of organisations that can apply to see records of who and when you've been calling/emailing or what you've been looking at online. Chances are your local council's on that list. The number of organisations able to access such info is being reviewed as part of the possible changes.

Didn't the Conservatives and Lib Dems oppose this idea when Labour suggested it?

Labour did indeed suggest creating a giant database of all the UK's web usage, but abandoned the idea after widespread opposition, including from the two parties now forming the UK's coalition government. Without knowing the full details of the current plans it's not easy to directly compare them.

What do Labour make of the reported plans?

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government had to explain what was being planned, but says she agrees that "the police and security services need to be able to keep up with new technology to deal with serious issues including disrupting terrorist planning, catching paedophile rings or cracking down on organised crime".

What do critics say?

Nick Pickles, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, called the move "an unprecedented step that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran". Conservative MP Dominic Raab said it was "a plan to privatise Big Brother surveillance" which "fundamentally changes the nature of the relationship between the state and the citizen" and turns every individual "into a suspect". Fellow Tory David Davis warned that until now anyone wishing to monitor communications had been required to gain permission from a magistrate, but the planned changes would remove that protection.

What do internet service providers say?

Trefor Davies, a board member at the UK's Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA), told the BBC that the technological challenge of collating and storing such vast levels of data would be huge. Although a large amount of data about us is already collected for billing and other purposes - such as who we call and when - ISPs do not currently store detailed data on what websites we visit, or details about the emails we send. Mr Davies said: "The email stuff isn't straight forward, and neither is the web. Those aren't bits of information that traditionally we keep. We don't keep backups of deleted emails. Think of all the spam people get," Mr Davies added. "We delete it, but under the new rules would we be allowed to?"

So when are we likely to learn more?

There has been widespread speculation that the plans will be included in a bill unveiled in the Queen's Speech next month.

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