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Mobile operators have kicked off the PR war against identifying those sharing files by revealing themselves as the ideal conduit for any kind of online crime.

The details come from the Mobile Broadband Group, which counts all the UK's operators as members and told ZD Net that mobile operators don't allocate IP addresses to individual users and therefore will have to be exempted from any legalisation requiring identifying copyright infringing users.

We got in touch with Hamish MacLeod, spokesman for the Mobile Broadband Group, who repeated the claim that operators "are not allocating one IP address per customer" and therefore "can't track back" without a database costing £35m to build.

The good Mr MacLaod is referring to the way that mobile operators provide internet access through a Network Address Translator (NAT). That means every Vodafone customer appears to the internet to be sharing a single* IP address, say 212.183.140.20, but internal to the network they have separate addresses, such as 10.47.192.31, and the NAT routes incoming data to the internal address that requested it.

The same mechanism is used by companies, originally to preserve IP addresses, but these days mainly as a security mechanism as the NAT will only route data that was requested from an internal user, blocking attacks from the internet automatically.

Given that network operators already store the location of every handset on the network and the details of every call and text - not to mention counting every byte of data carried - it might seem a small thing to record IP address allocations. But the operators we contacted admitted they keep no such records.

Not that it would cost £35m to add the capability - that figure was for the whole broadband industry, and includes notifying copyright infringers and even the reduced demand for broadband given the increased cost.

As it stands, though, a mobile connection would seem the ideal way to conduct illicit business online, be it illegal file sharing or hacking major governments - no one's watching you when you're inside the operator's space. ®

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