Civil rights groups criticise government plans to spy on UK citizens

Civil liberties groups criticise government plans to grab powers to monitor the calls, e-mails, texts and website visits of all UK citizens

The government is to expand its powers to monitor the calls, e-mails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK, but civil liberties groups have criticised the move.

Under legislation to be announced, internet firms will be required to give UK intelligence agency GCHQ access to communications in real time, according to the BBC.

This will enable intelligence officers to track online activity and identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long.

But the new law, which may be announced in the Queen's Speech in May, will not allow GCHQ officers to access the content of e-mails, calls or messages without a warrant.

The Home Office claims the move is key to tackling crime and terrorism. "It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes," a spokesman said.

Privacy protection group Big Brother Watch said the unprecedented step would see the UK adopt the same kind of surveillance seen in China and Iran, while civil rights group Liberty described the move as a "pretty drastic step in a democracy".

However, even if the proposed move is announced in the Queen's Speech, any new law would still have to make it through Parliament.

Attempts by the former Labour government to introduce a central, government-run database of everyone's phone calls and e-mails failed in 2006 in the face of fierce and widespread opposition.

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