By the end of this year, any e-mail to or from a friend or business in England can be read by a British intelligence agent at MI5 headquarters in London.
The British government is now building a $39 million Internet spy center to watch all online activities. And it's requiring local Internet service providers, such as AOL, to hardwire links directly to it.
Only the Russians have gone this far in monitoring the Net, say experts. Privacy groups are appalled by the scope of the British effort and the precedent it sets among Western nations. "With this facility, the government can track every Web site that a person visits, without a warrant, giving rise to a culture of suspicion by association," says Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research in London.
Other governments worldwide, concerned about terrorist and criminal activity, are watching the British model closely.
"A global information infrastructure - potentially the greatest force since the birth of British trench coats are coming to the Net
the automobile - is being forged," says Simon Davies, director-general of Privacy International, a London-based civil liberties group. Simultaneously, notes Mr. Davies, "mass surveillance [by corporations and governments] is developing from Argentina to Zambia."
An outburst of Internet-orchestrated civil violence in central London earlier this week has stiffened British government resolve on this issue.
The Net spy center - run by MI5, Britain's internal security service - will be backed by tough new laws to force users to reveal passwords and disclose encryption keys to security authorities.
Charles Clark, the Home Office minister supervising the surveillance project, says the new facility will "allow police to keep pace with technology."
But opposition member of parliament Norman Baker has condemned the center as a "Big Brother" enterprise. "Privacy is under attack," says Mr. Baker. "The balance between the state and the individual has swung too far in favor of the state."
Richard Smith, an Internet consultant based in Brookline, Mass., says "I fell out of my chair" when he heard what Britain was planning to do.
"The British are the first, after the Russians, to try this type of patrolling, so they're in pretty bad company," he said.
Demonstrations earlier this week in central London by anarchists and environmental protesters, who used the Internet to plan and organize their activities, have convinced police that the role of the surveillance center should be extended.
In the May Day demonstrations here Monday, a self-styled "anticapitalist" gang came close to demolishing a McDonald's fast food restaurant, and looted nearby shops. But what outraged British Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior government ministers was a series of attacks on monuments in central London.
A memorial near 10 Downing Street, honoring Britain's war dead, was covered with graffiti, and a statue in Parliament Square of wartime British leader Sir Winston Churchill was defaced with a hammer and sickle daubed in scarlet paint.
More than 5,000 police drafted for duty in the heart of the British capital failed to prevent the attacks.
Afterward Blair, who is head of Britain's security services, said: "The people responsible are an absolute disgrace." Their actions had "everything to do with mindless thuggery."
A senior British police officer who requested anonymity says that "We knew that messages were being exchanged ahead of the demonstrations. The same thing happened at a large demonstration last year when my officers actually saw group leaders in the streets with laptops, e-mailing each other, and directing groups of demonstrators to particular places."
Police also note that weeks before Monday's demonstrations, a group called "Reclaim the Streets" set up a Web site and called on demonstrators to arrive in Parliament Square with spades and shovels. It urged them to dig up lawns and pavements and plant flowers and shrubs. Some protesters did just that, but a violent anarchist element in the crowd broke away and began attacking monuments and buildings. A spokesman for Reclaim the Streets later said his organization was "not responsible" for the violence.
In any case, the push for more Internet oversight alarms some observers. "This generation has seen a significant increase in media intrusion," says Davies at Privacy International. "New technologies create the potential for invasions of privacy and rights on a scale that could scarcely have been imagined even 20 years ago."
It is estimated that some 15 million people (in a nation of 55 million) have access to the Internet. But the MI5 surveillance center, due to be operational by the end of the year, will not need warrants to carry out message interception.
The new law giving the security services powers to tap into Internet and e-mail traffic is currently passing through the British Parliament.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill will enable police and security services to penetrate the operations of Britain's 200 or more ISPs. Police will also be able to demand that individuals reveal passwords and encryption codes.
The Home Office (internal affairs ministry) will require ISPs to install and pay for "hardwire" links to the facility, enabling security operators to download Internet and e-mail traffic.
Last September government minister Patricia Hewitt said that the inclusion of law-enforcement clauses in an e-commerce bill was necessary because "crime has gone electronic and global."
The bill gives power to the police to demand that individuals hand over encryption keys if they are under suspicion. Failure to do so could result in a two-year prison sentence.
"What is alarming about the new legislation is that it is so sweeping," says Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights, an organization based in Leeds, England, that defends Internet privacy.
"I have nothing against well-targeted surveillance, but it is outrageous that the government intends to use the law to enforce surrender of encryption keys," says Mr. Akdeniz. "The accessing of traffic data through ISPs is also a matter of great concern."
Some Internet experts say that Britain's move will boost the sale of legal and illegal encryption devices as businesses and individuals try to keep their communications private.
Nicholas Bohm, a leading civil rights campaigner, says the new law contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights which "states that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. The e-commerce legislation reverses the burden of proof," he says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society