Britain's Home Secretary, Theresa May, has drafted a bill that would allow the British government to force telecoms and ISPs to retain the communications data of their users for up to 12 months. The Communications Data Bill is estimated to cost £1.8 billion ($2.8 billion) to implement over the span of 10 years, and would let the government access phone records, online social connections, and email correspondences of every one of its citizens, provided that the use of this data is "necessary and proportionate." It's exactly this kind of vague legal language that has May's opponents worried that the system could be used inappropriately.
While the British government would have the ability to look at who its citizens contact, when they contacted them, and how, the actual message content would not be viewable without a warrant. This actually works well in instances where law enforcement agencies need to pursue members of organized crime syndicates or when apprehending a criminal is extremely time sensitive, like in the case of kidnappings. Having the ability to rapidly discover communication relationships, obtain a warrant, and apprehend serious criminals is great in theory — but as some of May's opponents state, criminals operating at this level could easily circumvent the system. Most smartphones support SSL and VPN tunnels, which are easy to set up and can provide an encrypted avenue for data to travel along, making this system instantly ineffective. The only people left to monitor in this equation are "average" citizens, not the sophisticated criminals that authorities would want to monitor.
Apprehending serious criminals is a cause that most people can get behind, but how much privacy and personal freedom citizens are willing to give up to achieve these goals represents a complex equation of marginal benefit versus marginal cost. This balancing act is something that lawmakers around the globe are grappling with each day, and as the internet pervades the everyday lives of ordinary, innocent people, how lawmakers treat their communications data could become an issue of paramount importance.