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UK.gov to spend hundreds of millions on snooping silo

Überdatabase pork barrel ahoy

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Exclusive The government is pressing ahead with plans to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a massive central silo for all UK communications data, The Register has learned.

Home Office civil servants are working on plans for the database under the banner of the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). The team has recently been expanded and a director-level official appointed to run the project, which is not yet official policy in public.

Sources said secret briefings revealed the cost of the database would run to nine figures and has already been factored into government spending plans. The IMP budget was part of the intelligence agencies' undisclosed funding bid to the Comprehensive Spending Review last year. In an answer to a parliamentary question on 8 July, the Home Office refused to provide any budgetary details, citing national security concerns.

The sum will dwarf the £19m we recently reported the government has given telecoms companies to service authorities' data requirements since 2004. The überdatabase will render existing arrangements for sharing communications data with government agencies obsolete.

The project has been pushed hard at Whitehall by the intelligence agencies MI6 and GCHQ. One ISP source described their demands as "science fiction". It's envisaged that the one-stop-shop database will retain details of all calls, texts, emails, instant messenger conversations and websites accessed in the UK for up to two years.

Communications providers fear a technical nightmare if they are forced to implement common data formatting rules. GCHQ declined to comment.

A pilot scheme will see probes inserted in networks owned by one mobile, one internet and one landline operator, sources said. It's thought the database could be administered by an expanded National Technical Assistance Centre, a Home Office agency. The probes will not record content of communications, which is seen as intrinsically less useful for intelligence data mining efforts.

A Communications Data Bill mandating the database was expected to be proposed before the summer parliamentary recess, but did not appear. It had been planned that the database would be bundled with the EU Data Retention Directive (EUDRD), which must be enshrined in UK law by March 2009.

However, last week the government released a consultation paper on transposing the Directive as a standalone statutory instrument. Laws made by statutory instrument do not require a vote in Parliament.

Amid widespread headlines decrying the long-published EUDRD as another "snoopers' charter", insiders wondered what had happened to the Communications Data Bill and its central database. A Home Office spokeswoman said the bill will be published at some time this year. She told The Register that plans had changed "to make the best use of parliamentary time".

When the Bill was announced by Gordon Brown in May, apart from transposition of the EUDRD, its aim was cryptically described as to "modify the procedures for acquiring communications data and allow this data to be retained". At Whitehall, sources said advocates of the überdatabase have sucessfully lobbied that a central repository is required to "maintain capability" to monitor communications.

In his 8 July parliamentary answer, Home Office minister Lord West indicated that view has become policy when he wrote:

The objective of the interception modernisation programme is to maintain the UK's lawful intercept and communications data capabilities in the changing communications environment. It is a cross-government programme, led by the Home Office, to ensure that our capability to lawfully intercept and exploit data when fighting crime and terrorism is not lost.

The "maintain capability" lobby argued that when everyone communicated using BT landlines, government intelligence gatherers could simply contact the operator to get call records. Now we all use myriad devices and services, the only feasible solution is to pool the data centrally, they contend.

Others have countered in Communications Data Bill discussions that a central, searchable database will not "maintain capability", but grant investigators unprecedented power to cross-reference data sources (including location data from mobile phone triangulation), go on "fishing trips", and infringe privacy.

The Information Commissioner's Office voiced such opposition when early details of the IMP were reported in May. But according to our sources, public resistance to the überdatabase has so far had no significant impact on policy.

The massive investment promises a bonanza for IT contractors. Answering a parliamentary question about the project's feasibility, Lord West said: "The private sector is likely to play a major role in this work and the programme will be conducting a competitive tender and entering commercial negotiations to commission its services." ®

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