One of the more extreme powers the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) handed out two years ago let government agencies obtain "traffic data" without a judicial warrant.
Traffic data is best described as the writing on the envelope of a message, instead of its contents. It can be the list of phone numbers you have called in the last six months. Or a full list of Websites you have visited. Or the times you log on, and from where. Or who you e-mail, or what programs you've downloaded, or what newsgroups you read. Or the position of your cellphone last Tuesday at five.
Because the risk of abuse of this power (there's no judicial oversight - all that's needed is the permission of a suitably high-powered boss), those who could wield it were strictly limited. Only the police, Customs and Excise and the secret services were allowed access to traffic data in the original act.
Not any more.
On Friday, the Home Office petitioned parliament to add a vast array of organisations to that list. If their passes, everyone from the DTI, any local authority, the Food Standards Agency, the Home Office themselves (of course), and staggeringly enough, Consignia. The final entry in the list says that "A Universal Service Provider within the meaning of the Postal Services Act 2000" has the same power as the secret services to read your traffic data. There's only one USP in Britain right now, and that's the provider previously known as the Royal Mail.
If the idea that the fricking Post Office has access to your web logs (access which would cost a competitive company millions, and would probably get them investigated by the Data Protection people), let alone every minor apparatchik on the block, you might want to kick up a fuss about this. It's due to appear before MPs on June 18th, and the Lords a little after.
How do I find out more?
Read the Order before Parliament. It's very short (although the list of allowed organisations is very long - two minutes should do it).
Flick through our quick notes on the original RIPA law. (The notes are based on an earlier draft, so the section numbers are a bit off. But you get the idea.)
What can I do?
Fax your MP now. The Order is to be debated next Tuesday, and these things are usually rubber-stamped. Tell your MP which groups you don't want to be spied on by (list them all), and tell him why. Explain what traffic data means (your MP might not now how wide-ranging it is). Explain it in terms he or she can understand - if they're a Conservative, explain how it's government prying into people's lives. If they're Labour, talk about civil rights. If they're Liberal, say what you like - the LibDems are usually down with this sort of nonsense. Ask for a reply.
It'll take twenty minutes of your time. It'll make a difference. Members of Parliament hate having this sort of wide-ranging power sneaked past them as much as you do. If you're feeling a bit lazy today, you could forward this message to one of your more overactive friends. And then write your letter tomorrow.
If you're a journalist, or want to write a detailed piece for others, you can contact Ian Brown (+44 7970 164526) at The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR). As ever, they were the ones to spot this piece of nastiness first. And if you're feeling flush, for £25 you can join the Friends of FIPR which will get you advance alerts and a warm feeling about these issues.