Parliament to unleash barrage of criticism on Snoopers' Charter
Unseen spook Farr back again with plan to tap the UK net
The joint parliamentary committee scrutinising the government’s Communications Data Bill - universally dubbed the “Snoopers' Charter” - is set to slate the draft law in its official report published tomorrow.
Most of the committee members felt the Home Office had failed to make a convincing case for the scale of requested powers required to monitor British citizens' activities online, The Register has learnt. Home Secretary Theresa May said the proposed surveillance law would "save lives" and help cops catch more paedophiles and terrorists.
But the committee's MPs and peers are likely to encourage the police and law enforcement agencies to work out a much simpler scheme that the public can trust. The message is likely to be “go back to the drawing board and come and talk to us when you have something fresh”. As regular Register readers will know, the surveillance plans now being re-examined have been touted to successive governments by the intelligence services for years with little change to any details other than the name.
The MPs are likely to offer fierce opposition to the proposals, which would allow the Home Office to wire network traffic probes into the public internet anywhere it chose, for this or any successor government to use for any purpose it chose.
The value for money of the £2bn scheme will also be criticised at a time when the police's technical crime-fighting resources are being severely scaled back.
The report will be another setback for the Home Secretary: in 2010 the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald was asked to review her plan to monitor citizens online. He previously called the project to mine the UK internet:
A paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. This database would be an unimaginable hellhouse of personal private information. It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail.
Tomorrow the joint parliamentary committee investigating the draft law will be backed, unexpectedly, by a normally well housetrained government lap cat: the specially vetted parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, which works behind the veil of secrecy.
The two panels' highly critical reports will be an expected disappointment for the Home Office. They are the latest in a series of spectacular disasters for career spy Charles Farr, who three years ago had hoped to land the top job at the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and become “C”.
So close yet so Farr
For the third time, but for the first time in public and in plain view of netizens, his attempts to get Britain’s domestic internet completely tapped by GCHQ and the other intelligence agencies appears to have fallen apart.
As chair of the Olympic Security Board, Farr also oversaw this year’s G4S security fiasco in which he found out days before the 2012 Games began that his chosen security contractors had not trained the necessary security guards. Thousands of troops and police had to be drafted in to take their places.
For more than five years, Farr has been the secret hand behind the state’s electronic surveillance plan. Appointed by Gordon Brown in July 2007 as the first Director General of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism and notionally as his National Security Adviser, Farr began by masterminding a strategy to mine private information. Within months, he had clawed £1bn from the Treasury for a new Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), intended to give GCHQ spooks ISP-level access to all UK internet communications.
The GCHQ plan – known internally as “Mastering The Internet” (MTI) - was first and exclusively revealed by The Register in May 2009. Subsequent developments have confirmed the accuracy of El Reg’s scoop.
When the coalition government took over, Con-Lib ministers had to come to terms with the clear promises they had made to block new surveillance laws. Farr had to bide his time for a year. His Labour-era Interception Modernisation Program was rebranded as the safer-sounding “Communications Capability Development Program” (CCDP). Nothing else changed.
Farr made elementary blunders in successive appearances before MPs and peers this year, pointing up the exercise as a smokescreen to distract attention from the core purpose of the new laws - to help GCHQ and defence contractors Detica install their planned data mining network at all major UK ISPs.
He stumbled and stuttered when asked to explain how the government had come up with claimed savings of £5bn to offset the costs of the CCDP. He could not justify the expenditure at a time when austerity cuts have forced police budgets down 20 per cent and knocked back the work of police high-tech and e-crime units across the country.
At first, Farr refused to be seen or photographed, according to parliamentary sources, and repeatedly asked to give his evidence in secret and in private. This cut no ice with the scrutinising committee. His British TV debut can now be viewed on the UK Parliament website (audio only).
Claims of phone companies storing data come unstuck
Farr launched his evidence to the committee with a series of astonishing slip-ups, claiming that “Communications Service Providers (CSPs) no longer retain for their own business purposes communications data as we know it ... they do not generate it ... there is nothing to which they (the CSPs) can get access”.
Asked to “elaborate” by a committee member, Farr claimed that “in the old days” providers kept itemised phone bill records “on a call-by-call duration-by-duration destination-by-destination basis” but that now, as customers often “no longer pay per transaction, [but] pay per month or per year”, telcos “have much less interest in bits of data”.
“30 years ago, BT may have kept data because they needed it in order to bill people correctly,” he said.
Farr’s claim was inaccurate and historically impossible, as the electromechanical exchanges of the early 1980s could not and did not generate call data records. What is now called “itemised billing” did not generally exist for many years thereafter. Now, far from the authorities’ access to communications records being reduced - as the smokescreen story went - it has blossomed with the introduction of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) in 2000, and the Data Retention Directive of 2009.
Farr claimed – on the basis of a secret study the Home Office refused to allow the joint committee to see – that police and intelligence agencies can currently see 75 per cent of communications data, but that that would be magicked up to 85 per cent if parliament would pass his new law and approve a £2bn spend over the next ten years.
Even on this basis, Farr’s team admitted that one in six communications links would remain unseen. Nor would minor ISPs be targeted for compulsory interception using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) systems, leaving plenty of dark cyberspaces where the customary internet spectres, paedophiles and terrorists could continue to operate unseen and unseeable. Quite how a plan with so many gaping holes could be a value-for-money UK security system was a concept that the government side struggled futilely to put forward.
85 per cent of exactly what would be harvested by the new system was never fully explained, but in a second session the officials confirmed that they were hoping to acquire access to encrypted webmail links, Skype VoIP calls and other private systems. They could not explain how they would defeat and thus destroy encrypted SSL (Secure Socket Layer) terminal-to-server protection used to thwart malicious attacks and interceptions. Nor could they explain clearly why it would not be better simply to ask Google, Microsoft and Skype to help UK law enforcement as they already do.
The obvious problem, the committee was told, was that Google and others have to comply with US privacy laws, and that they publish information about what customers’ data they hand over. These and similar providers said that they could only legally respond to justified and specific requests, as opposed to data mining trawls across all available data.
The government also prevented the heads of British intelligence from being examined by the MPs and peers as to the real reasons for the bill. The Home Office then landed a spectacular own goal when, days before the committee started work, MI5 chief Jonathan Evans was allowed to give a public lecture claiming that it would be “extraordinary and self-defeating if terrorists and criminals were able to adopt new technologies in order to facilitate their activities” and if parliament refused to give MI5 what it wanted.
The Home Office still banned him from explaining his case to Parliament.
Real government achievement: A 40,000-word bill on a national database managed to avoid the word 'database'
Throughout the hearings in July and October, the Home Office team and Home Secretary Teresa May struggled vainly to stay on message, repeatedly reciting mantras about “catching criminals and saving lives”. Other mantras included: “there will be no central database” and “we only want communications data, not content”.
Desperate to avoid comparisons with Farr’s first failed attempt at the same new law under the previous Labour government in 2008, the language of this year’s bill and explanations was tortuously written around an obscurely defined “Request Filter” agency, which would receive validated orders to extract communications data – “who is in contact with whom” - from the police and other public bodies.
The Request Filter scheme was constructed as a way of avoiding referring to the feared and loathed “central database” of the original Farr plan. But the Home Office team faced well-briefed MPs who soon extracted admissions that data for the “request filter” required fitting remotely controlled DPI equipment at “six or seven major ISPs”.
Farr told that joint committee that “DPI black boxes … come into play in certain circumstances when an overseas provider or the state from which an overseas provider comes, or both together, tell us that they are not prepared to provide data regarding a service which is being offered in this country". The system would therefore put DPI boxes on the “UK network across which the data from the overseas provider must move, with the purpose of sucking off that data”.
The distributed DPI network would therefore have to read the contents of data packets automatically, interpret internet applications and protocols, and then analyse the contents to find the identity of who was communicating with whom, on any type of web service. To do this, “fragmented communications data” gathered from DPI access points would be assembled into a national database, by GCHQ, Detica, or both. But the word “database” was taboo at every point.
Perhaps the most spectacular achievement of the Home Office team was to write an entire 40,000-word draft Communications Data Bill designed to construct a national database derived from data mining, without letting the word “database” creep in even once.
No one has any idea what traffic inspection kit will be fitted
The legal power to require ISPs to fit DPI gear to their networks is contained in Clause One of the bill, but gives no description of the equipment to be fitted or what it might be required to do. This would be defined later in orders that the Home Secretary would then make, which would not be checked by Parliament and might be secret.
The harshest criticism the bill will face in both reports, according to parliamentary sources, is for the Home Office’s inability and unwillingness to explain what equipment ISPs would have to install, and its lack of response to security questions about how the DPI net could be defended against damaging cyber-attacks.
The Home Office claimed that it had briefed and consulted key industry organisations. A stream of industry witnesses told the committee the opposite, revealing that in some cases “consultation” had amounted to sending them a copy of the bill the day before it was published.
MPs and peers were also sceptical about the ability of GCHQ’s chosen contractor, BAE Detica, to deliver an ill-defined and unspecified complex computer project on time and in working order.
BAE’s last major government flop was the planned Nimrod MRA4 maritime surveillance aircraft, whose cost per plane had more than quadrupled by the time the disastrous project was axed in 2010, to the point where the UK could actually have acquired two or more space shuttles for the same money. Incoming coalition ministers ordered the half-rebuilt planes to be bulldozed into wrecks to stop BAE and air chiefs conspiring to push the project back into the defence budget.
BAE Detica’s 2011 report for the Cabinet Office on the “cost of cyber-crime” was widely criticised by experts for its claim that Britain annually loses £27bn though crime. Cyber expert Peter Sommer of the London School of Economics described the Detica report as "inflated British Aerospace puffery".
The data-mining plan Farr has been promoting appears at first to have been devised in the years after attacks on 11 September 2001, when former GCHQ chief and Cabinet Secretary Sir David Omand put forward proposals that British intelligence agencies should start harvesting and collecting “PROTINT”, or the “electronic exhaust” that we all now leave behind in everything we do online.
Even now, Google has hardly heard of PROTINT.
PROTINT, as described by Omand in his 2010 book Securing the State, “is personal information about an individual that resides in databases, such as advance passenger information, airline bookings and other travel data, passport and biometric data, immigration, identity and border records, criminal records, and other governmental and private sector data, including financial and telephone and other communications records … Access to such information, and in some cases the ability to apply data mining and pattern recognition software to databases, might well be the key to effective pre-emption in future terrorist cases”.
Farr's next top job lined up
Farr now appears to want to follow in Omand’s footsteps. He has applied for the recently vacant post of Home Office Permanent Under Secretary, shortly to be supersized as “Chief Executive”. He has been shortlisted for the post, according to political sources.
Parliamentary committee member and Lib Dem MP Dr Julian Huppert led many detailed enquiries into the case for the bill. Last week, he described it as “a seriously botched document, unfit in principle and in detail … thrown together without evidence to support the need for such wide-ranging powers".
“This is a bill that should not and will not get support in Parliament”, he told the Spectator magazine.
At the same time, the Home Office misfired again. The two committees had originally decided to publish their reports last Tuesday. They later announced that they would wait a week for the Leveson report to emerge and be debated.
Farr’s Home Office team tried to strike first, placing an “exclusive interview” with Home Secretary Teresa May in The Sun, attacking Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and claiming hysterically that if opponents of the bill succeeded in having it changed or delayed “we could see people dying”.
“The people who say they’re against this bill need to look victims of serious crime, terrorism and child sex offences in the eye and tell them why they’re not prepared to give the police the powers they need to protect the public. Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives,” May was quoted as saying.
But the attack looked stupid and flopped because its timing was wrong. As one privacy campaigner commented “it seems the Home Office can’t even manage to listen to their own telephone messages”.
Members of the joint committee are determined to not allow the Home Office to surf tomorrow’s avalanche of criticism and carry on as though nothing had happened. Liberal Democrat sources have said that Nick Clegg will use the report – which he demanded – to force a complete new review of surveillance measures. He should not fail, unless the Labour Party wishes to win back their former reputation for control freakery and intrusion by backing the spooks. ®
Duncan Campbell gave evidence to the Joint Select Committee on the Communications Data Bill.