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British authorities on Thursday unveiled an ambitious plan to log details about every email, phone call or text message in the U.K. -- and in a sharply-worded editorial the nation's top law enforcement official accused those worried about the surveillance program of being either criminals or conspiracy theorists.
Officials insist they're not after content. They promise not to read the body of emails or eavesdrop on phone calls without a warrant. But the surveillance proposed in the government's 118-page draft bill would provide British authorities a remarkably rich picture of their citizens' day-to-day lives.
Home Office Secretary Theresa May said in an editorial published ahead of the bill's unveiling that only evil-doers should be frightened.
"Our proposals are sensible and limited," she wrote in The Sun, a mass-market daily. "They will give the police and some other agencies access to data about online communications to tackle crime, exactly as they do now with mobile phone calls and texts. Unless you are a criminal, then you've nothing to worry about from this new law."
Yet plenty of people were worried, including a senior lawmaker from May's ruling Conservative Party.
"This is a huge amount of information, very intrusive to collect on people," David Davis, one of the proposal's most outspoken critics, told BBC radio. "It's not content, but it's incredibly intrusive."
Authorities and civil libertarians have been debating the plan for weeks, but Thursday marked the first time that the government itemized exactly what kinds of communication it wanted to track, and how it planned to.
The bill would force communications providers -- companies such as the BT Group PLC or Virgin Media Inc. -- to gather a wealth of information on their customers.
Providers would log where emails, tweets, Skype calls and other messages were sent from, who they were sent to, and how large they were. Details of file transfers, phone calls, text messages and instant conversations, such as those carried over BlackBerry Messenger, would also be recorded.
The bill also demands that providers collect IP addresses, details of customers' electronic hardware, and subscriber information including names, addresses, and payment information.
Even physical communications would be monitored: Address details written on envelopes would be copied; parcel tracking information would be logged as well.
All the data would be kept for up to a year or longer if it was the subject of legal proceedings.
The measure remains a draft bill, which means it's subject to change before it is present to Parliament.
In a nod to controversy surrounding the bill, the government has taken the unusual step of submitting it to two parallel legislative bodies: A joint legislative committee composed of members of Britain's House of Lords and the House of Commons as well as Parliament's intelligence committee.
In a statement to fellow lawmakers, May struck a measured tone, saying she recognized "that these proposals raise important issues around personal privacy" but that the law would be balanced.
She was less measured in The Sun, where she dismissed worries that the bill would stomp on free expression as "ridiculous claims" dreamed up by "conspiracy theorists."
"Without changing the law the only freedom we would protect is that of criminals, terrorists and pedophiles," she said.