Liberty vows fight against police drive to access browsing histories
Civil liberties campaigners have vowed to resist a push for p olice to be given powers to potentially access the internet browsing history of any computer user in Britain.
Senior officers want to revive the measures similar to those contained in the so-called Snooper's Charter which would force telecommunications companies to retain for 12 months data that would disclose websites visited by customers, The Times reported.
Police said they need the powers because the scale of activity carried out online meant traditional methods of surveillance and investigation were becoming more limited, but accepted the measures would need safeguards to protect privacy.
Civil rights group Liberty warned the powers would be "extraordinarily intrusive" and vowed to resist them "in the strongest terms".
A Whitehall source said it was "plain wrong" to suggest that police would be able to freely access details of any websites visited and stressed that there would be "limits" to any powers granted.
Richard Berry, the National Police Chiefs' Council spokesman for data communications, refused to comment on any specifics of the forthcoming legislation but told The Times the police were not looking for anything beyond what they could already access through telephone records.
He accepted it would be "far too intrusive" for officers to be able to access content of internet searches and social media messaging without additional safeguards such as the requirement for a judicial warrant.
Mr Berry, assistant chief constable at Gloucestershire Police, told the newspaper: "We want to police by consent, and we want to ensure that privacy safeguards are in place.
"But we need to balance this with the needs of the vulnerable and the victims."
Explaining the powers police want, Mr Berry said: "We essentially need the 'who, where, when and what' of any communication - who initiated it, where were they and when did it happened. And a little bit of the 'what', were they on Facebook, or a banking site, or an illegal child-abuse image-sharing website?
"Five years ago (a suspect) could have physically walked into a bank and carried out a transaction. We could have put a surveillance team on that but now, most of it is done online. We just want to know about the visit."
The shelved C ommunications Data Bill - labelled a ''snooper's charter'' by critics - would have required companies to retain phone and email data to include records of browsing activity, social media use and internet gaming, among other things.
It was blocked by the Liberal Democrats due to privacy concerns during the coalition government but the forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill could revive the measures.
Tory MP David Davis told The Times: "It's extraordinary they're asking for this again, they are overreaching and there is no proven need to retain such data for a year."
Liberty's policy officer Rachel Robinson said: "It defies belief that the Government continues to seek powers so extraordinarily intrusive that none of our major intelligence allies think them acceptable to use on their people.
"These measures have already been rejected by a cross-party parliamentary committee and the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. We will resist them in the strongest terms and urge right-thinking parliamentarians to do the same."
But a Government source said: "The idea that the police will be able to access every website people visit is plain wrong.
"It's right that police want all the available powers to keep us safe but it's the role of government to make sure there are limits."
A Home Office spokesman said: "The Government will shortly publish a draft Investigatory Powers Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.
"It will update the legal framework governing the use of investigatory powers to ensure law enforcement and the security and intelligence agencies have the powers they need, subject to strong safeguards and robust, independent oversight.
"The draft bill will build on the recommendations made by three independent reviews undertaken by the intelligence and security committee of Parliament, the Royal United Services Institute, and David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation."
A spokeswoman for the National Police Chiefs' Council said: "Law enforcement has not asked for access to people's web browsing history and would never want to see it; that would far too intrusive.
"We do want to be effective in the digital world so that there aren't no-go areas online where we can't trace criminal activity or find crucial information to protect people at risk of harm. We want to do this within strong, clear privacy safeguards."