Key Points:

LONDON - Police have been given the power to hack into personal computers without a court warrant.

The Home Office is facing anger and the threat of a legal challenge after granting permission. Ministers are also drawing up plans to allow police across the European Union to collect information from computers in Britain.

The moves will fuel claims that the Government is presiding over a steady extension of the "surveillance society" threatening personal privacy.

Hacking - known as "remote searching" - has been quietly adopted by police across Britain since the development of technology to access computers' contents at a distance. Police say it is vital for tracking cyber-criminals and paedophiles and is used sparingly but civil liberties groups fear it is about to be vastly expanded.

Last month, European ministers agreed in principle to allow police to do remote searches of suspects' computers in the EU.

Critics last night warned it would usher in a vast expansion of police hacking operations. Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights campaign group Liberty, said: "This is no different from breaking down someone's door, rifling through their paperwork and seizing their computer hard drive."