Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/06/17/lse_imp/

MPs launch probe of massive net snooping project

Unrealistic, disproportionate and misleading, experts say

By Christopher Williams

Posted in Government, 17th June 2009 06:02 GMT

MPs and Lords will launch an investigation into the Home Office's £2bn plan to store details of every online communication, after a critical report by the London School of Economics branded it unrealistic, disproportionate and misleading.

Representatives from all sides of both Houses will use the report as the starting point of a probe into the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) in July.

The LSE's academics today questioned whether the government had fully appreciated the legal and democratic implications of IMP. They said thousands of planned Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) probes to harvest data on web browsing, email, VoIP calls and instant messenger conversations from inside ISP networks would blur the legislative and ethical lines between communications data and communications interception.

In its consultation document on IMP, published after delays in April, the Home Office emphasised that the system would only collect information on who contacts whom, when, where and how. It would not, then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said, monitor the content of communications.

Current legislation governing surveillance - the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) - draws a strong distinction between communications data and communications interception. The former requires only the approval of a senior law enforcement or intelligence officer, the latter a warrant signed by the Home Secretary. Officials aim to maintain the separation if IMP is implemented.

But according to Professor Peter Sommer, a leading expert witness on communications data and leader of the LSE research, DPI systems make that impossible. "RIPA is based on the old fashioned telephone," he said.

"With internet technology you have to collect everything and then throw away what the law does not allow you to have or use.

"We think that at a practical level, the communications data/interception distinction will be impossible to interpret both for ISPs and the courts. Moreover the existing balance of protections against abuse will also be lost."

His comments echo the concerns of Register sources over the past 12 months. Several have cited the example of a Facebook conversation: for authorities to discover who is at the other end the DPI equipment will have to look inside the content payload.

Such grey areas could spell trouble for prosecution cases, according to the LSE's report. The content of communications is currently inadmissable in court, so a defence might be able to make technical arguments against allowing evidence obtained via IMP.

Home Office, law enforcement and intelligence figures have argued throughout the debate on IMP that it will merely "maintain capability" for authorities to access communications data as internet technologies come to dominate electronic communication. That line was dismissed by the LSE researchers because advances in automated analysis would enable much more data to be interrogated than at present.

They wrote: "It is plainly unsatisfactory to assert that the debate is solely about 'maintaining' capabilities for acquiring communications data.

"The ICT environment has changed so much since 2000 that we ought to be asking ourselves about the appropriate balance between powers given to law enforcement and the agencies and the privacy of the individual."

They argued IMP should also not be debated without considering the power of other new surveillance technologies adopted by the government, such as Automated Number Plate Recognition.

GCHQ, the Cheltenham-based electronic eavesdropping agency that emerged from war time code breaking efforts at Bletchley Park, has pressed hard in Whitehall for massive spending to gather communications. Its classified "Mastering the Internet" project, a key part of the IMP revealed by The Register last month, includes hundreds of millions of pounds of DPI and automated analysis facilities.

While the Home Office's consultation is concerned with future storage arrangements, Mastering the Internet is already underway and focused on obtaining and analysing terabytes of communications data daily.

According to sources, the agency wants to be able to configure DPI equipment inside ISPs remotely, allowing it to harvest data from any new internet applications that might emerge. This would mark another major change from the current arrangements, according to the LSE's report, as the collection of communications data is under the control of the provider, not a government agency.

IMP would be unmatched in the world as a communications surveillance mechanism

Under the Home Office's proposals, once collected, communications data would be stored for two years in a system of federated databases run by providers at a cost to taxpayers of £2bn over 10 years. Ministers also plan to deputise ISPs, mobile operators and phone companies to carry out preliminary analysis by linking different data together into a single record for each customer.

As we reported last week, those proposals have met with a frosty reception from the internet industry, who criticised them as showing a lack of appreciation for their technical capabilities, and naivety over the potential costs.

The LSE's researchers agreed, criticising the Home Office for failing to publish detailed estimates. "We have a substantial number of questions about what is and what is not included in their cost estimates, and from where the costs will be met," they wrote.

In response to the report's findings, the Home office said: "We know that this is a complex and extremely sensitive subject, with a fine balance to be made between protecting public safety and civil liberties.

"Because of this we have launched a public consultation to seek views from interested parties – including communication service providers. We will ensure there are stringent safeguards inbuilt into any future proposals."

Sommer said he was pleased the work - carried out with UK and international experts under the Chatham House rule - will be used as briefing material by Parliamentarians. Their probe, beginning in July, will be the first by a new group, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Privacy, formed to act offer "early warning protection" on privacy issues. Its membership is drawn from MPs and peers on all sides of both Houses and includes David Davis and Lord Carlile, the independent scrutineer of terrorism legislation.

The Home Office said it would cooperate with the Group on Privacy's work.

The full LSE report is available here. ®