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British authorities unveil plan for mass electronic surveillance

- Associated Press - Thursday, June 14, 2012

LONDON — British authorities on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan to log details about every email, phone call and text message in the U.K.

And in a sharply worded editorial, the nation's top law enforcement official accused those worried about the surveillance program of being either criminals or conspiracy theorists.

Officials insist they're not after content. They promise not to read emails or eavesdrop on phone calls without a warrant.

But the surveillance proposed in the government's 118-page draft bill would provide British authorities a remarkably rich picture of their citizens' day-to-day lives.

Home Office Secretary Theresa May said in an editorial published ahead of the bill's unveiling that only evildoers should be frightened.

"Our proposals are sensible and limited," she wrote in the Sun, a mass-market daily. "They will give the police and some other agencies access to data about online communications to tackle crime, exactly as they do now with mobile phone calls and texts. Unless you are a criminal, then you've nothing to worry about from this new law."

Yet plenty of people were worried, including a senior lawmaker from Ms. May's ruling Conservative Party.

"This is a huge amount of information, very intrusive to collect on people," lawmaker David Davis, one of the proposal's most outspoken critics, told BBC radio. "It's not content, but it's incredibly intrusive."

Authorities and civil libertarians have been debating the plan for weeks, but Thursday marked the first time that the government itemized exactly what kinds of communication it wants to track, and how it plans to.

The bill would force communications providers - companies such as the BT Group PLC or Virgin Media Inc. - to gather a wealth of information on their customers.

Providers would log where emails, tweets, Skype calls and other messages were sent from, who they were sent to, and how large they were.

Details of file transfers, phone calls, text messages and instant conversations, such as those carried over BlackBerry Messenger, also would be recorded.

The bill also demands that providers collect IP addresses, details of customers' electronic hardware, and subscriber information including names, addresses and payment information.

Even physical communications would be monitored: Address details written on envelopes would be copied; parcel tracking information would be logged as well.

All the data would be kept for up to a year or longer if it was the subject of legal proceedings.

The measure remains a draft bill, which means it's subject to change before it is presented to Parliament.

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