Britain to unveil plan for new digital-intel laws

London (AFP) - Britain's government published proposals for new Internet spying laws Wednesday to keep pace with the digital age and crack down on terror threats, but critics have branded the package a "snooper's charter".

The plans are expected to grant intelligence agencies new powers to request Internet communications data, including on messages sent through social media applications such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

"This would be one of the most important pieces of legislation during this parliament because it goes absolutely to the heart of the government's duty to keep the British public safe," Prime Minister David Cameron told cabinet colleagues on Tuesday.

The move comes as concerns mount that jihadist militants are increasingly recruiting and planning attacks online, and amid intelligence warnings that Britain is under greater threat of attack.

Among the new powers to be proposed for the Investigatory Powers Bill will be the ability to intercept Internet communication records.

These show which Internet services were accessed by a suspect and when, but not the content of messages or their recipient, nor the Internet browsing history.

In a statement, Britain's Home Office said the bill would "propose a modern legal framework" for which authorities could access what data, and specify the circumstances.

"Sometimes communications data is the only way to identify offenders, particularly where offences are committed online," a government source said.

"But it is important that people understand that communications data is only ever used in a necessary, proportionate and accountable way. That is why the draft bill contains strengthened safeguards."

British media have reported that the bill may go further, banning Internet firms from using encryption that can only be deciphered by a user, and requiring technology companies to keep email and social media records for 12 months.

Currently, warrants for such data requests are issued by the Home Secretary Theresa May.

But this authority could be handed to judges, who would also decide on warrants for serious and organised crime. Meanwhile, ministers would sign off on cases involving national security and foreign affairs.

- Civil liberties concerns -

Civil liberties groups worry that the bill's powers will lack sufficient oversight and be used unnecessarily, and could lead to the kind of blanket surveillance revealed by US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

"It's difficult to overstate how pivotal the coming weeks will be for the privacy of every single person in this country," civil rights group Liberty said on its website.

"The safeguards we're calling for -- judicial sign-off on spying requests, public disclosure of powers, targeted surveillance -- are nothing extreme."

British officials say it was partly due to concerns raised by Snowden that they have updated surveillance legislation, and also because current laws date as far back as 1995, before the rise of the consumer Internet.

"Without such capabilities, we would be left like James Bond at the cocktail party when everyone else is online," The Times, which was granted rare access to the British communications spying agency GCHQ last week, quoted an MI6 agent as saying.

They say the proposals boost transparency by bringing together existing surveillance laws and simplifying regulatory oversight.

The draft bill will reduce three current supervisory bodies -- one on communications interception, one for intelligence agencies and one for law enforcement -- to one body led by a senior judge.

The draft bill will be scrutinised by a committee of lawmakers, allowing changes to be made before it is formally debated by parliament.