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Mobile networks line up to bash net snooping plan

'Wholly disproportionate' and 'cannot possibly work'

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Exclusive Every UK mobile network has serious objections to plans to intercept and store details of every communication via the internet, Home Office documents reveal.

Submissions to a government consultation from 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone highlight the strength of industry concern over the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), which aims to capture lists of online contacts and log all website visits and VoIP calls.

The documents - obtained by The Register under the Freedom of Information Act - show how criticism forced the Home Office to stall the scheme after the consultation closed last month. They also voice doubts over whether the government is capable of implementing or maintaining the type of system it wants.

Public progress on IMP is now not expected until after the election.

The mobile operators variously attack IMP's technical feasibility, its legality, its impact on customer privacy and its opaque £2bn cost estimate. They also question the consultation's assertion that the ability to access records of all communications is essential for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to do their jobs.

The government asked mobile operators to comment on proposals that would compel them to intercept details of when and where each of their customers use third party communications services such as Facebook and Skype, as well as who they contact. The operators would process and store this information in massive datacentres, matching it to build searchable profiles of customers and devices for authorities.

In its response, Orange said officials in the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism - the Home Office unit responsible for IMP - had failed to make their case.

"There is no evidence in the consultation document that there is a strong case for the acquisition and retention of additional data which [communications providers] do not currently collect for their business purposes - the proposals appear to be wholly disproportionate."

T-Mobile said that during 2008 it answered 137,444 requests for its existing basic billing and location data from law enforcement and intelligence agencies, a 10 per cent annual increase.

"We have not yet seen persuasive evidence of credible research into the extent to which these new communications technologies will actually be used for the purposes of serious and organised crime," it said.

"In essence the consultation document appears to privatise the art of surveillance, taking it out of the hands of the 'traditional' law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and passing the responsibilities to intermediaries such as ourselves."

The firm also claimed the electronic spy agency GCHQ - which it is understood would be responsible for configuring a network of taxpayer-funded Deep Packet Inspection probes throughout the UK communications infrastructure - may not be able to contend with technological change on the internet.

"Encryption appears to be an increasingly effective way of offering a competitive edge to a communications product, and we do not know whether NTAC [part of GCHQ] would be able to keep pace with the increasing sophistication of service providers," T-Mobile said.

O2, the UK's largest mobile operator, acknowledged the increasing use of internet communications proposed a problem for authorities but said its "confidence in the proposed route, however, is immediately undermined as the document offers a 'solution' that cannot possibly work".

Vodafone said it would be "uneasy" about collecting and processing third party data, and about other companies collecting its customers' data for "business intelligence" purposes.

It also echoed the opinion, published in June year by the London School of Economics, that IMP would blur the legal distinction in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act between information about communications and what is actually said. Authorities require a warrant to intercept the latter, but for internet services such as Facebook the details of who is communicating are transmitted in the same data packets as what they are saying.

Completing the roster of UK mobile operators, in its submission, 3, which claims to be the largest mobile internet provider, said "we remain unconvinced" IMP is needed and that it has "substantial concerns" over a lack of privacy safeguards.

Details of mobile operators' broad criticism of IMP follows similar comments from LINX, which represents ISPs. It branded the consultation "disingenuous".

The Home Office has said it will continue to talk to industry to develop IMP. ®

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