Does the government want to snoop on your data?

Does the government really want you to tell them everything? And what are its new communications-watching plans all about? Simon Brew finds out more…

Home Office minister James Brokenshire has been trying to downplay the row that has broken out, arguing that "it's not about some new super-database or spying on the contents of everybody's communications".

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg backs that up, saying that "I am totally opposed to the idea of governments reading people's emails at will, or creating a new central government database."

He argues that "all we are doing is updating the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals, and updating that to apply to technology like Skype which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those mails".

It's a traditional defence of any move that's perceived as impinging on civil liberties, and there's clearly something to the argument.

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Even hardened civil liberties campaigners seem in agreement on that. Where the area of debate lies is where to draw the line. Under the extension of existing powers being proposed, there's the feeling of a grab everything, ask questions later' approach. That is, every piece of possible electronics communication is being stored, on the off chance that it might be needed. Campaigners argue that's the wrong way round.

It's not helped by the list of who's able to request information about your web use and communications details. In theory, local councils, the NHS, the Independent Police Complains Commission, the Office of Communications, the Royal Mail, the Department For Business, Innovation & Skills, the Food Standards Agency and many more can apply for access. In fact, under the existing legislation, the BBC reports that 552,550 requests were made for communications data in 2010, although not all of these were granted.

Big Brother Watch is one of the many organisations that raised objections to the plans. It argues that it's an "unprecedented step", that will see Britain adopt the same kind of surveillance as China and Iran", arguing "these plans are an unprecedented attack on privacy online and it is far from clear that this will actually improve public safety, while adding significant costs to internet business".

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