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UK Seeks More Data on Communications to Fight Terrorism

Civil liberties groups and telecommunications industry representatives are up in arms about a suggestion that the U.K. government wants to keep track of every phone call, e-mail, and web site visit made in the country.

The U.K. government is preparing new telecommunications legislation that it says is necessary to deal with changes in the way we communicate, including the use of e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, and social network sites.

"The changes ... will increasingly undermine our current capabilities to obtain communications data and use it to protect the public," said a spokeswoman for the U.K. Home Office.

The government wants to update the law to allow authorities to obtain communications data it says is essential for counter-terrorism purposes and investigating crime.

The creation of a central database containing information about citizens' electronic communications is among the measures being considered in a draft of the new law, according to local media reports.

To make such a database a reality would mean a re-engineering of networks in Britain, with the result that many service providers would simply move abroad, according to Ross Anderson, chair at the Foundation for Information Policy Research, a think tank for Internet policy in Britain.

"It's an enormous power grab by the Home Office, and to think it will become a reality is wishful thinking," Anderson said.

An executive of encryption software vendor PGP Corp. also slated the idea of a central database.

"You've got to admire the government's gall in attempting to bring in yet another 'super-database' with public confidence still in tatters over recent lapses in data protection," said Jamie Cowper, director of European marketing at PGP.

It would make more sense to focus on existing databases and proving their security before introducing new ones, according to Cowper.

The Internet Services Providers' Association is taking more of a wait-and-see approach, but is worried about modifications in the procedures by which the authorities acquire communications data, according to a spokesman.

Full details of the government's plans will be released later this year, but ministers have made no decision on whether a central database will be in that draft bill, according to a statement from the Home Office.

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