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ISPs scorn government net snoop plan

'Disingenuous' Home Office slapped again

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The government's plans to massively increase surveillance of the internet have come under fire again, this time from the ISPs it wants to deputise as its snoopers.

LINX, a major internet peering cooperative, said in its submission to the Home Office's consultation on the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) - which closed last week - that moves to harvest data on every web browsing session, email, instant messenger conversation and VoIP call would not "maintain capability", as officials claim.

"We view the description of the government's proposals as 'maintaining' the capability as disingenuous: the volume of data the government now proposes CSPs should collect and retain will be unprecedented, as is the overall level of intrusion into the privacy of the citizenry," it said.

In its consultation paper, the Home Office dismissed the status quo around access to communication data as a "do nothing" approach.

With a dose of sarcasm, LINX said: "The mere fact that many individuals are using web-based mail services outside the UK does not of itself constitute an evidence base that the 'Do Nothing' procedure (also known as the EU Data Retention Directive) is inadequate."

The criticism echoes comments published by the Information Commissioner's Office last week. The data protection watchdog also disputed the Home Office's "maintaining capability" line.

It is understood IMP would involve deployment of a ubiquitous network of deep packet inspection probes inside ISP networks. They would be used to extract information on who contacts whom, when, where and how online, from inside travelling data packets. Because the way different services transmit data often changes - for example how Hotmail transmits sender and recipient email addresses - the probes would need to be constantly updated remotely.

Sources have told The Register that this work would be carried out by GCHQ, under its ongoing "Mastering the Internet" project, which we revealed earlier this year. Contracts have already been awarded to private sector partners and hundreds of millions of pounds allocated from the secret Single Intelligence Account, the black budget which funds GCHQ, MI5 and MI6.

LINX raised technical objections to the proposed system, while criticising the lack of detail released by officials. "We have grave misgivings about the technical feasibility of such ambition," it said.

Mobile operators have also sought to raise doubts about the technical feasibility of IMP.

LINX added: "It will often be extremely difficult to reverse engineer communications protocols that are proprietary and unpublished. This includes protocols for applications such as computer games/virtual worlds, and other applications where the client and server components are both created by the same software developer."

The cooperative also raised a serious concerns about a series of legal issues, such as the potential need for changes to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, to allow ISPs to carry out what LINX said was "plainly interception".

Officials have argued that because IMP will not target the content of communications such concerns are invalid. A recent legal briefing to parliament by the London School of Economics sought to demolish that position.

LINX said it didn't believe the government had even begun to consider the safeguards that increased surveillance of the internet would require. You can read the entire submission here. ®

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