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The government is drawing up plans to give the police and security and intelligence agencies new powers to access personal data held by internet services, including social network sites such as Facebook and Bebo and gaming networks.
The move, heralded in this morning's speech on international terrorism by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, is prompted by concern that criminals and terrorists are using websites as a way of concealing their communications, according to Whitehall security sources.
At present, security and intelligence agencies can demand to see telephone and email traffic from traditional communications services providers (CSPs), which store the personal data for business purposes such as billing.
The rapid expansion of new CSPs - such as gaming, social networking, auction and video sites - and technologies such as wireless internet and broadband present a serious problem for the police, MI5, customs and other government agencies, the security sources say.
Sites such as Bebo and Facebook provide their services free, relying mainly on advertising for income. They do not hold records of their customers, many of whom in any case use pseudonyms.
"Criminals could use a chat facility - they are not actually playing the game but we can't actually get hold of the data," said one official.
"Criminal terrorists are exploiting free social networking sites," said another Whitehall security official, who added that the problem was compounded by the increasing use of data rather than voice in communications.
"People have many accounts and sign up as Mickey Mouse and no one knows who they are," he said. "We have to do something. We need to collect data CSPs do not hold."
Clearly concerned about a public backlash against the plan, officials stress that the government is not building up a single central database containing personal information of everyone in the country.