BERLIN Britain's European partners will seek urgent clarification from London about whether a British spy agency has tapped international telephone and Internet traffic on a massive scale, Germany's justice minister said on Saturday.
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper read like the plot of a horror film and, if confirmed as true, would be a "catastrophe".
In its latest article based on information from Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), the Guardian reported a project codenamed "Tempora" under which Britain's eavesdropping agency can tap into and store huge volumes of data from fibre-optic cables.
Tempora has been running for about 18 months and allows the Government Communications Headquarters agency (GCHQ) to access the data and keep it for 30 days, the paper said, adding that much information was shared with the NSA.
"If these accusations are correct, this would be a catastrophe," Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
"The accusations against Great Britain sound like a Hollywood nightmare. The European institutions should seek straight away to clarify the situation."
With a few months to go before federal elections, the minister's comments are likely to please Germans who are highly sensitive to government monitoring, having lived through the Stasi secret police in communist East Germany and with lingering memories of the Gestapo under the Nazis.
"The accusations make it sound as if George Orwell's surveillance society has become reality in Great Britain," the parliamentary floor leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Thomas Oppermann, was quoted as saying in a newspaper.
Orwell's novel "1984" envisioned a futuristic security state where "Big Brother" spied on the intimate details of people's lives.
"This is unbearable," Oppermann told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. "The government must clarify these accusations and act against a total surveillance of German citizens."
Earlier this month, in response to questions about the secret U.S. data-monitoring programme Prism, also exposed by Snowden, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament that GCHQ always adhered to British law when processing data gained from eavesdropping.
He would not confirm or deny any details of UK-U.S. intelligence sharing, saying that to do so could help Britain's enemies.
News of Prism outraged Germans, with one politician likening U.S. tactics to those of the Stasi, and the issue overshadowed a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Berlin last week.