Details of every email sent and website visited by people in Britain are to be stored for use by the state from tomorrow as part of what campaigners claim is a massive assault on privacy.
A European Union directive, which Britain was instrumental in devising, comes into force which will require all internet service providers to retain information on email traffic, visits to web sites and telephone calls made over the internet, for 12 months.
Police and the security services will be able to access the information to combat crime and terrorism.
Hundreds of public bodies and quangos, including local councils, will also be able to access the data to investigate flytipping and other less serious crimes.
It was previously thought that only the large companies would be required to take part, covering 95 per cent of Britain’s internet usage, but a Home Office spokesman has confirmed it will be applied “across the board” to even the smallest company.
Privacy campaigners say the move to force telecoms companies to store the data is the first step towards the controversial central database at the heart of the Home Office’s Intercept Modernisation Programme, which will gather far more detailed information on Britain’s online activities.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: “I don’t think people are aware of the implications of this move. It means that everything we do online or on the phone will be known to the authorities.
“They are using this to produce probably the world’s most comprehensive surveillance system.
“This is a disgraceful example of the covert influence that Brussels has across our freedoms and liberties. The entire episode has been marked by a litany of secret dealings, vicious political games and a complete absence of transparency.”
Phil Noble of privacy group NO2ID, said: “This is the kind of technology that the Stasi would have dreamed of.
“We are facing a co-ordinated strategy to track everyone’s communications, creating a dossier on every person’s relationships and transactions.
“It is clearly preparatory work for the as-yet un-revealed plans for intercept modernisation.”
Another EU directive which requires companies to hold details of telephone records for a year has already come into force, and although internet data is held on an ad hoc basis this is the first time the industry has faced a statutory requirement to archive the material.
Information held includes the details of who contacted who, and when, but does not involve the content of emails being stored.
The taxpayer will reimburse internet service providers and telecoms companies for the costs associated with storing the billions of individual records.
Thierry Dieu of ETNO, the European telecoms networks operators association, said: “We regret that the legislation has been put through without real consultation with the players in the market.
“The UK is the only country which has decided to reimburse the cost of retaining all the data. It remains to be seen whether this will cover all the costs.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “It is the Government’s priority to protect public safety and national security. That is why we are completing the implementation of this directive, which will bring the UK in line with our European counterparts.
“Letters will go out to communication service providers telling them that it is coming into force. We are talking across the board, to all communication providers.”
He said communications data played a “vital part” in a wide range of criminal investigations, such as the hunt for the killer of Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old schoolboy shot dead in Liverpool in 2007, and the prevention of terrorists attacks.
“Without communications data, resolving crimes such as the Rhys Jones murder would be very difficult if not impossible.
“Access to communications data is governed by Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which ensures that effective safeguards are in place and that the data can only be accessed when it is necessary and proportionate to do so,” he said.
A European deal on storing data was first pursued by Charles Clarke when he was home secretary in 2005.
At the time, a Home Office spokesman confirmed that a major mobile phone company which had previously stored its data for just two days had agreed to retain the information for a year in exchange for £875,000 in taxpayers’ money.
A report compiled by ETNO in 2004 said that a large internet service provider would need to store between 20,000 and 40,000 terabytes of data – of the equivalent of 40 trillion emails – if it was required to keep all traffic data for 12 months.