Plans for a massive government database of Britain's phone and email traffic, abandoned in 2008 following a public outcry, may be resurrected.
An industry official briefed on the government's moves said on Sunday that it appears to be "reintroducing it on a slightly different format".
"It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals. It is absolutely everybody."
- David Davies, Conservative MP
James Blessing of the Internet Service Providers' Association said it was disclosed to his association by the interior ministry during a recent meeting.
Britain's interior ministry declined to comment, saying an announcement would have to be made to parliament first, possibly as soon as next month.
However, a ministry spokesman insisted that any new surveillance programme would not involve prying into the content of emails or voice conversations.
"It's not about the content," the official said, speaking anonymously in line with office policy. "It's about the who, what, where and when."
Internet firms will be required to give intelligence agency GCHQ access to communications on demand, in real time.
Currently, authorities already have access to a huge wealth of communications data, although the standards for retaining it differ depending on whether, for example, conversations are carried out over the phone, in an email, or over an instant messaging programme.
"It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals. It is absolutely everybody," David Davis, a Conservative member of parliament, was quoted as telling local media.
"Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts by saying: 'If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine. If it is a terrorist or a criminal, go and ask a magistrate and you'll get your approval'," Davis said.
Even if the move is announced, any new law would still have to make it through parliament, potentially in the face of opposition in both its houses.
Blessing, of the service providers' association, said the proposed move would require the installation of tens of thousands of specialised pieces of hardware to monitor the country's internet traffic.
The price tag would run into the billions of dollars, a cost he said would either have to be borne by the taxpayer or by internet service companies, who would in turn have little choice but to pass it on to their customers.