Internet service providers will have to record the details of every email sent in the UK, when an EU directive becomes British law in March.
Under proposals, the data will be accessible to over 600 public bodies, such as the police and councils, it has been reported. The government may even have to pay over £25 million to help ISPs set up the system, under which they will store the data for a year.
The move is aimed at reducing terrorism and other crime, but it has been called a waste of money an attack on privacy. It comes only weeks after it emerged the government was considering outsourcing a planned database of all the emails and calls made in the country, as well as allowing police officers to hack into citizens’ PCs without a warrant.
Dr Richard Clayton, a security researcher at Cambridge University, said in an interview with the BBC that the money could have been better spent. "There are much better things to do to spend our billions on than snooping on everybody in the country just on the off-chance that they're a criminal," he said.
Human rights group Liberty said it did not trust “any government or any organisation to keep that much very sensitive information about us all and to keep it safe”.
ISPs have also expressed frustration at the plan. Malcolm Hutty of ISP body LINX told the BBC it was “not clear” what steps the services providers will have to take to comply with the rules. The government had given indications that small ISPs would be exempt, he said, but firms were concerned over future lawsuits if they became bigger and had to store data.
Nick Sears, VP EMEA at instant messaging security supplier FaceTime Communications, said tracking emails alone meant the government would be blind to all the communication on IM programs. “When monitoring communications, email is just one part of the story and it can’t be treated in isolation - it would be like locking the front door, but leaving the ground floor windows open not to look at real time communications tools such as IM, P2P and social networks,” he said.
The Home Office said the data was a vital tool for investigation and intelligence gathering. "It will allow investigators to identify suspects, examine their contacts, establish relationships between conspirators and place them in a specific location at a certain time,” a spokesperson said. “Implementing the EC directive will enable UK law enforcement to benefit fully from historical communications data in increasingly complex investigations and will enhance our national security."