Communications firms are being asked to record all internet contacts between people as part of a modernisation in UK police surveillance tactics.
The home secretary scrapped plans for a database but wants details to be held and organised for security services.
The new system would track all e-mails, phone calls and internet use, including visits to social network sites.
The Tories said the Home Office had “buckled under Conservative pressure” in deciding against a giant database.
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Announcing a consultation on a new strategy for communications data and its use in law enforcement, Jacqui Smith said there would be no single government-run database.
But she also said that “doing nothing” in the face of a communications revolution was not an option.
The Home Office will instead ask communications companies – from internet service providers to mobile phone networks – to extend the range of information they currently hold on their subscribers and organise it so that it can be better used by the police, MI5 and other public bodies investigating crime and terrorism.