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Home Office 'technologically clueless' on web super-snoop law

Ex-top cop, net experts trash real-time UK packet sniff

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Scrambling for Safety 2012 Computer experts, politicos, civil liberty campaigners and even a retired top cop universally agreed yesterday that the Home Office's real-time mass internet surveillance plan demonstrated just how "clueless" Theresa May's govt department is on implementing such a system.

Speaking at the Scrambling for Safety event at the London School of Economics, Tory backbencher David Davis repeated his condemnation of May's decision to resurrect and rebrand Labour's stalled Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) as the Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP), once again labelling it a "snoopers' charter".

Any supporters of CCDP, which is expected to feature in the Queen's Speech on 9 May, remained very quiet during the debate. Instead computer boffins skewered the plan and questioned how the Home Office would define the difference between communications data and content online.

Digital forensics expert Peter Sommer said it was extremely difficult to separate out the two, and added that the Home Secretary should consider abandoning such a notion.

He also pointed out that it just isn't feasible to insert thousands of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) probes into the country's infrastructure in order to monitor internet traffic in real-time. Sommer said that the amount of work to configure and constantly update such a system was overwhelming, and noted that many well-known websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google were now encrypting their pages with HTTPS.

Ross Anderson, a respected security engineering professor at the University of Cambridge, questioned how such a net-snooping law could be regulated. He predicted that the likes of Facebook and Google would agree to DPI black boxes being added to their networks, although others would demand a warrant or simply say "no".

Anderson added that ministers were "technologically clueless". The panel agreed that the issue of mass surveillance was not affiliated to one political party and that the Home Office is a department in the jaws of the Security Service.

"Home secretaries are all the same," Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said. She added: "This kind of blanket surveillance is not necessary in a civil society."

Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert meekly defended his party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, by saying that he has insisted that the net-snooping bill arrives next month in draft form. He added that the "safeguards for access are far too weak" and called on any such legislation to come with clear requirements for a magistrate's, rather than a minister's, order.

Davis, a one-time shadow Home Secretary, told the assembled audience that he often hears ministers justifying the likes of a snoopers' charter by saying "if you knew what I know" and added that Prime Minister David Cameron didn't "understand the power of what is being talked about".

The MP warned: "The costs are not financial, they are costs in terms of liberty."

Even top cops rubbish 'snoopers' charter'

Perhaps the most interesting speaker at the event, however, was Sir Chris Fox - a top cop who served in the force for 34 years and is a former president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). He agreed that mass surveillance simply wouldn't work.

Fox called on the Home Office to take a balanced approach towards such a plan and added that once data had been gathered it would inevitably be mined, leading to mistakes being made.

Chillingly, Fox said such a system "won't catch top-level criminals and terrorists because they'll stop using that process". He warned "there will be terrorist acts" but pointed out that such a fact needed to be balanced with living in a free society.

"I disagree with hoovering up of data," he told the audience and brought into question exactly what the security services would do with the mountain of intercepted information from everyone who lives in Blighty.

A retired Special Branch officer sitting in the audience also chimed in to attack May's CCDP bill. He explained that the Home Office was interested in "pre-emption" to "get to the bomber" before an atrocity occurred. He then pointed to the Toulouse gunman, who was tracked down by French police via an IP address of a computer the killer used to view a motorbike sales ad.

He said cops had "500 e-mail addresses linked to assassin but were overwhelmed and they couldn't stop him in time".

The erstwhile officer summed up the mood of the event by chiding UK government ministers who, he said, "haven't got a clue" about implementing such a net-snooping plan. ®

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