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Election makes net snooping a pariah policy

Alan Johnson's gift to the next government

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Analysis With a general election looming, it's a brave politician that includes unpopular laws in his department's final legislative programme.

So news that Home Secretary Alan Johnson has hoofed plans to capture and store details of every voice call, SMS, web browsing session, IM conversation and social network communication into the long grass comes as little surprise.

The Home Office said on Monday that following a mostly negative response to a consultation on the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), it will "work with communications service providers and others to develop these proposals, and aim to introduce necessary legislation as soon as possible". The necessary legislation will not be in the Queen's Speech next week, however.

Some reports generously interpret this as an announcement that the government will "push ahead" with the £2bn scheme. Others claim it effectively means IMP is "cancelled".

Both interpretations are wrong, and ignore the context of the project.

The Home Office cannot simply "push ahead" on IMP unilaterally. Unlike some of its other major security technology projects, such as ID Cards and e-Borders, surveillance of internet communications will not happen by waving cash and telling some favoured contractors to get cracking.

That's because the infrastructure to be surveilled already exists, and is in private hands.

ISPs quite reasonably consider themselves in the internet business, not in the surveillance business. Their reactions to the IMP consultation - some expressed publicly, some off the record - reveal a deep resistance to more regulation, added costs and even moral objections to the scheme.

It used to be much simpler. When the electronic communications available to the British public were provided by BT, obscure backhaul firms and four mobile operators, friendships nurtured in Whitehall over years saw to it that intelligence and law enforcement were generally satisfied with the cooperation they received.

But deployment of a vast network of Deep Packet Inspection probes throughout every UK ISP would mark cooperation between the communications industry and government on an unprecedented scale. The only activity officials are able to "push ahead" with following the consultation is trying to convince sceptical ISPs that IMP is a good idea, financially viable or even technically feasible.

On the other hand, the idea that IMP is "cancelled" is simply fanciful. The project enjoys the backing of the entire intelligence and law enforcement establishment.

Claims we must "maintain the capability" of investigators to access communications records have been led by senior officers in the most emotive areas of policing: counter-terrorism and child abuse. The Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Security Service, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the Met have all made public calls for IMP to go ahead.

Against that background, to presume that IMP is off just because the necessary laws are not in the next six months' legislative schedule seems naive at best. It also pays no heed to where the proposals were born and the fact that spending on analysis infrastructure is already under way.

IMP was brewed in the powerful belly of the UK's intelligence apparatus. GCHQ, the agency which will be responsible for trying to discern meaning from the bottomless pile of data IMP will store, is already building the technology with help from contractors.

Note that GCHQ and friends will still be around after the next election, as will their demands for IMP.

Ever the political pragmatists, the Tories know this well, and the section of shadow justice minister Dominic Grieve's recent speech on reversing the rise of the surveillance state was notably soft on IMP.

He said a Conservative government would submit the proposals to the Information Commissioner's Office to assess their impact on privacy. The ICO has already said it believes the case for mass surveillance of the internet has not been made.

So while the government can't "push ahead" with IMP, it's certainly not "cancelled". As one of the world's most ambitious internet surveillance projects, it's just subject to more delays - as we reported - which in the grand scheme is not unexpected and means little.

This week's announcement means financial and technical talks between officials and the communications industry will continue, in secret. The next government will have to take the political heat. ®

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