Details could be leaked, said one Lib Dem MP
[bbc.co.uk] Social networking sites like Facebook could be monitored by the UK government under proposals to make them keep details of users‘ contacts.
The Home Office said it was needed to tackle crime gangs and terrorists who might use the sites, but said it would not keep the content of conversations.
It follows plans to store details of all phone calls, e-mails and websites visited on a central database.
Civil liberties campaigners have called the proposals a "snoopers‘ charter".
Tens of millions of people use sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace to chat with friends, but ministers say they have no interest in the content of discussions – just who people have been talking to.
Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake said the websites contained sensitive personal details and that he was concerned information could leak from any government-controlled database.
The Independent newspaper quoted him as saying similar plans to store phone and email records threatened to be the "most expensive snooper’s charter in history".
"It is deeply worrying that they now intend to monitor social networking sites which contain very sensitive data like sexual orientation, religious beliefs and political views," he said.
The newspaper also reported that Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, was considering lobbying ministers over the proposal, which he described as "overkill".
"It is right to point out the difficulty of ensuring that we maintain a capability to deal with crime and national security… where that butts up against issues of privacy".
Vernon Coaker, Home Office
Phone companies are already required to store details of all calls, such as the time and date, location and who made them, for 12 months for possible use in criminal investigations or court cases.
An EU directive ordering data on internet traffic to be stored in a similar way is due to come into effect in the UK on Monday, 6 April.
The government is considering proposals to store all communications data on a single database, which may be run by a private company.
It has delayed legislation on the move amid concerns about civil liberties and is due to launch a consultation on the plan "shortly", which will set out privacy safeguards.
The Home Office claims the new database is necessary to allow police and security services "keep up with technological advances" and that billing information is already stored by telecoms companies.
A spokesman said: "The government has no interest in the content of people’s social network sites and this is not going to be part of our upcoming consultation.
"We have been clear that the communications revolution has been rapid in this country and the way in which we collect communications data needs to change, so that law enforcement agencies can maintain their ability to tackle terrorism and gather evidence."
The spokesman reiterated that as with similar proposals for emails, text messages and phone calls, there were no plans to retain the content of conversations.
Details of the proposals were disclosed by Home Office minister Vernon Coaker earlier this month, at a Commons committee to examine draft EU directives.
He said that the government was considering acting on social networking sites because they were not covered by the latest proposals from Brussels.
Mr Coaker acknowledged that the plan would raise fresh concerns about the right to privacy, saying he accepted it was an "extremely difficult area".
"It is absolutely right to point out the difficulty of ensuring that we maintain a capability and a capacity to deal with crime and issues of national security, and where that butts up against issues of privacy," he said.
The Cabinet Office already monitors popular social network sites such as Facebook, Netmums, Fixmystreet and MumsNet to see what users are saying about public services.