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GCHQ outsources net snooping... to EDS

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Exclusive The government has outsourced parts of its biggest ever mass surveillance project to the disaster-prone IT services giant formerly known as EDS, The Register has learned.

HP contractors are busily helping GCHQ build systems to allow data mining of every communication online, even though the government's response to a limited public consultation on the plans has not yet been published.

Workers from the division of HP formerly known as EDS are employed at the Concrete Doughnut in Cheltenham, designing and installing the massive computing resources that will be needed to analyse details of who contacts whom, when where and how.

It's understood that the firm is closely involved in GCHQ's internet surveillance projects, which aim to enable the spy agency to fish intelligence from the oceans of data it plans to intercept online, and from what is already collected by ISPs and phone operators. Contractors are being consulted on policy debates, for example.

News of the firm's involvement is likely to increase concern among politicians over the project. EDS has been involved in a parade of government IT failures, budget overruns and data losses in recent years, including but not limited to the National Offender Management Information Service, the tax credits system, the Defence Information Infrastructure and the Child Support Agency.

The relationship with GCHQ is considered so sensitive within HP - which has recently integrated EDS after acquiring it for $13.9bn last year - that executives refer to the agency and its 5,000 staff as "a client in the West Country".

News that work continues with the private sector securely on board raises questions over the Home Office's consultation, Protecting the public in a changing communications environment.

The document, published in June, ostensibly sought views on whether ISPs should be forced to gather terabytes of data from their networks on the government's behalf. That collection and storage strand of the intelligence and security system's broader effort to monitor and interrogate internet communications is called the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). It's estimated it will cost £2bn over 10 years.

Work in Cheltenham to crunch the data is being carried out under a secret project called Mastering the Internet.

A major government IT delivery contractor's long-term, ongoing involvement in the effort is likely to be seen as an indication the Home Office's consultation could never have made any substantial difference to the plans.

Earlier this year The Register revealed that Detica and Lockheed Martin were already both involved in Mastering the Internet, contracting on analysis software and hardware respectively.

One very senior national security official recently defended the consultation. International allies had described even having a consultation as "totally crazy", he said.

The official added that the type of mining software provided by Detica, which searches bulk data, such as communications records, for patterns, was a powerful tool to identify suspects.

In a statement, the Home Office said: "We know that this is a complex and sensitive subject, with a fine balance to be made between protecting public safety and civil liberties.

"This is why we launched a public consultation to seek views from interested parties. That consultation has now finished and we are considering the responses received."

At time of publication HP had not responded to a request for comment.

Government policy is to never comment on GCHQ's work or contracts. The Home Office said: "Part of the role of Government in working to protect the public is to understand from industry how emerging technologies may help address threats to public safety and achieve a workable balance between public safety interests and individual human rights. We continue to examine the technology available." ®

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