The Swedish government yesterday presented plans to allow its defence intelligence agency to monitor phone calls and email traffic to and from Sweden - without having to apply for a court order.

In a bid to combat terrorism and other threats to national security, the Swedish National Defence Radio Establishment would get the go-ahead to use so-called data mining software to search for sensitive keywords in phone and email communication passing through wires and cables across the country's borders. The government said that conversations within the country would stay untouched.

Today, such monitoring can only be done with court approval if police suspect a crime. The defence agency is allowed to monitor airborne signals such as radio and satellite traffic.

Government officials stressed that only a tiny fraction of electronic communication - and only international traffic - will be monitored, but critics, including Sweden's security police SÄPO , say the plans would infringe on people's integrity.

They compare the bid to the US surveillance programme launched in 2001. That monitors international phone calls and emails to and from the US involving terrorist suspects.

Swedish defence minister Mikael Odenberg defended the new legislation, saying it was necessary in today's changed world where communications are increasingly transmitted through fiber optic cables and not through the ether.

"This is about collecting information for the country's foreign, security and defence policy and protecting Sweden from foreign threats," Odenberg told the AFP news agency .

Many European governments have been expanding their surveillance and police search powers in attempts to counter terrorism.

In the Netherlands, the secret service can monitor email traffic in specific cases. In the UK, email traffic can only be intercepted with a warrant signed by the secretary of state, and the monitored communication cannot be used as evidence in court.

The Swedish proposal needs parliamentary approval at a vote later this year before it can go ahead. The majority of the opposing political parties said they would fight the bill.