Government defends - and criticises - comms database plans

The government wants to give police and the security services more power to snoop around in email and phone calls - plans that have been slammed by the anti-terror minister as "awful".

Over the past year, the government has been considering how it can increase its use of communications data in the fight against serious crime and terrorism, and previously said it would create a massive database to hold data on all emails, phone calls and browsing sessions.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith attempted to defend the plans, saying such information had been useful in nearly every recent serious crime and terror investigation.

"Communications data - that is, data about calls, such as the location and identity of the caller, not the content of the calls themselves - is used as important evidence in 95 per cent of serious crime cases and in almost all Security Service operations since 2004," she said, laying out the details of the plan in a speech today.

She stressed that just data about emails and phone calls would be held in the database, not content: "There are no plans for an enormous database which will contain the content of your emails, the texts that you send or the chats you have on the phone or online."

Despite previous government statements, Smith denied local authorities would have access to the database. "Nor are we going to give local authorities the power to trawl through the database in the interests of investigating lower level criminality under the spurious cover of counter-terrorist legislation," she said.

The plans are expected to show up in the Data Communications Bill, which will be introduced in the Queen's Speech in December. The Government's Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) has already received 1 billion in funding for a comms database.

While such 'Big Brother' plans are likely to draw criticism from opposition parties, privacy campaigners and academics as well as the general public immediate censure came from a member of the government itself. Anti-terror minister Lord Carlisle slammed the move to wholesale surveillance: "As a raw idea it is awful. However it is a question of degrees and how it is developed. Searches should be made on a case-by-case basis with appropriate reviewing measures so that they can't be done willy-nilly by government," he told The Independent newspaper.

Earlier this summer, Information Commissioner Richard Thomas called the plans "a step too far for the British way of life".