Millions of Britons who use social networking sites such as Facebook could soon have their every move monitored by the Government and saved on a “Big Brother” database.
Ministers faced a civil liberties outcry last night over the plans, with accusations of excessive snooping on the private lives of law-abiding citizens.
The idea to police MySpace, Bebo and Facebook comes on top of plans to store information about every phone call, email and internet visit made by everyone in the United Kingdom. Almost half the British population – some 25 million people – are thought to use social networking sites. There are already proposals under a European Union directive – dating back to after the 7 July 2005 bombs – for emails and internet usage to be monitored and added to a planned database to track terror plots.
But technology has moved on in the past three years, and the use of social networking sites has boomed – so security services fear that that has left a loophole for terrorists and criminal gangs to exploit.
To close this loophole, Vernon Coaker, the Home Office minister, has disclosed that social networking sites could be forced to retain information about users’ web-browsing habits. They could be required to hold data about every person users correspond with via the sites, although the contents of messages sent would not be collected. Mr Coaker said: “Social networking sites, such as MySpace or Bebo, are not covered by the directive. That is one reason why the Government are looking at what we should do about the intercept modernisation programme because there are certain aspects of communications which are not covered by the directive.”
In exchanges with the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Tom Brake, he insisted: “I accept this is an extremely difficult area. The interface between retaining data, private security and all such issues of privacy is extremely important. It is absolutely right to point out the difficulty of ensuring we maintain a capability and a capacity to deal with crime and issues of national security – and where that butts up against issues of privacy.”