A Bristol MP has said he is confident his Liberal Democrat colleagues will thwart attempts for a major expansion of the Government’s powers to monitor the email exchanges and website visits of every person in the UK.
Stephen Williams said civil servants and security advisers were behind the plans announced by the government last week.
Under legislation expected in next month’s Queen’s Speech, internet companies will be instructed to install hardware enabling GCHQ – the Government’s electronic “listening” agency – to examine “on demand” any phone call made, text message and email sent, and website accessed, in “real time” without a warrant.
The Home Office argued that the measure was “vital” to combat terrorism and organised crime and stressed a warrant would be needed in order to access the content of the communications they were monitoring.
But the Bristol West MP said that the Liberal tradition of “a suspicion of state power and a desire to see it controlled in order to protect individual liberty” would underpin his party’s opposition to the worst excesses of the plans.
“We will all have to wait until the draft Bill is published before we can debate its contents. But I am confident that the speculation that it will propose legalising the mass snooping in real time of our emails and social network messages, will be quashed,” he wrote on his blog.
“It seems more likely that the recording of such traffic (rather than the content) will be brought within existing legislation covering email and more conventional communications. But this will also be an opportunity to strengthen safeguards over the authorisation of surveillance and who is permitted to use the data.
“Surveillance of personal communications is necessary to combat terrorism and tackle serious crime. But there is no reason for a wide range of government agencies or local government to have access to such information. Liberal Democrat MPs will build on our proud record in government and make sure that updating our security laws enhances civil liberties.”
Mr Williams’ statement was backed by the party president Tim Farrow on Sunday, who told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that his party would “kill” the plans if they were not watered down.
“I am prepared to recognise that there is obviously a need in modern society with new technology to have a look at what needs to be given to the security services, but only if it is absolutely clear there is no universal access,” he said.
“But we are prepared to kill [the plans], be absolutely clear about that, if it comes down to it.
“If we think this is a threat to a free and liberal society then there would be no question of unpicking them or compromising, this just simply must not happen.”
Security experts have said that internet technology has left them unable to intercept calls which use systems such as Skype instead of traditional phone systems.
Land line phone conversations are relatively easy to intercept, using equipment installed at telephone exchanges and satellite ground stations, but internet calls are virtually impossible to listen in on unless a bug is installed on the computer being used to send or receive it.