Group: U.K. planning surveillance program
All messages would be tracked, industry official says
by Raphael Satter - Apr. 2, 2012 12:11 AM
LONDON - The U.K. government is preparing proposals for a nationwide electronic surveillance network that could potentially keep track of every message sent by any Briton to anyone at any time, an industry official briefed on the government's moves said Sunday.
Plans for a massive government database of the country's phone and e-mail traffic were abandoned in 2008 following a public outcry. But James Blessing of the Internet Service Providers' Association said the government appears to be "reintroducing it on a slightly different format."
Blessing said that the move was disclosed to his association by Britain's Home Office during a meeting in recent weeks.
Britain's Home Office declined comment, saying an announcement would have to be made to Parliament first -- possibly as soon as next month.
There was no indication of exactly how such a system would work or to what degree of judicial oversight would be involved, if any.
A Home Office spokesman insisted that any new surveillance program would not involve prying into the content of e-mails or voice conversations.
"It's not about the content," the official said, speaking anonymously in line with office policy. "It's about the who, what, where and when."
In a statement, the Home Office said it's vital that police and intelligence services "are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism, and to protect the public."
Authorities already have access to a huge wealth of communications data, although the standards for retaining it differ depending on whether, for example, conversations are carried out over the phone, in an e-mail, or over an instant-messaging program.
Generally, authorities request such information during an investigation. A standardized mass-monitoring program capturing of every e-mail, every post and every tweet would spell the creation of a formidable new surveillance regime.
"It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals," Conservative lawmaker David Davis told the BBC. "It is absolutely everybody."
The revamped surveillance plans were first reported by Britain's Sunday Times newspaper.
Britons Protest Government Eavesdropping Plans
By ALAN COWELL
Published: April 2, 2012
LONDON — British lawmakers and rights activists joined a chorus of protest Monday against plans by the government to give the intelligence and security services the ability to monitor the phone calls, e-mails, text messages and Internet use of every person in the country.
In a land where tens of thousands of surveillance cameras attest to claims by privacy advocates that Britain is the Western world’s most closely monitored society, the proposal has touched raw nerves, compounding arguments that its citizens live under what critics call an increasingly intrusive “nanny state.”
The debate in recent years has pitted those who justify greater scrutiny by reference to threats of terrorism and organized crime against those who cleave to more traditional notions of individual privacy.
But the current proposal would go a step further, raising the question of how security agencies can themselves keep track of a proliferation of newer technologies such as Skype, instant messaging and social networking sites that permit instant communication outside more traditional channels.
“What we do need to make sure is that as technology changes we are able to maintain our current capability in this area,” a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules.
The Home Office said the new measures were vital to provide police and security services with “communications data to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.”
Under the proposal, made public in The Sunday Times of London, a law to be introduced this year would allow the authorities to order Internet companies to install hardware enabling the government’s monitoring agency, known by its initials, GCHQ, to examine individual communications without a warrant.
A similar effort to enhance the authorities’ powers was made by the previous Labour government in 2006, but it was abandoned after ferocious opposition, including from the two parties that now form the coalition government — the dominant Conservatives and the smaller Liberal Democrats — and are now re-introducing the same legislation..
Currently, government eavesdroppers and police need a warrant to monitor specific communications. But the new system would permit the authorities to track communications data like “time, duration and dialing numbers of a phone call or an e-mail address,” the Home Office said in a statement.
“It does not include the content of any phone call or e-mail, and it is not the intention of the government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications,” the statement said.
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and a Liberal Democrat, defended the plan, saying he was “totally opposed to the idea of governments’ reading people’s e-mails at will or creating a new central government database.”
“The point is, we are not doing any of that and I wouldn’t allow us to do any of that,” he said, arguing that the authorities wanted to update “the rules which currently apply to mobile telephone calls to allow the police and security services to go after terrorists and serious criminals and updating that to apply to technology like Skype, which is increasingly being used by people who want to make those calls and send those e-mails.”
However, opponents, like the Conservative lawmaker David Davis, said the measures would give the authorities far greater powers to intrude into areas that have traditionally been private.
“It is not focusing on terrorists or criminals,” Mr. Davis said. “It is absolutely everybody. Historically, governments have been kept out of our private lives.”
“Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts, by saying, ‘If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine; if it is a terrorist or a criminal, go and ask a magistrate and you’ll get your approval.’ You shouldn’t go beyond that in a decent, civilized society, but that is what is being proposed.”
“This is an unnecessary extension of the ability of the state to snoop on ordinary innocent people in vast numbers,” he said.
“The problem we have had in the past is this information has been leaked, lost, stolen,” said Malcolm Bruce, a Liberal Democrat member of Parliament. “I think there would be very, very real concerns that it could be open to all kinds of abuse.”
“We have had a situation where police have been selling information to the media,” he said, referring to testimony at a judicial inquiry into media ethics and practices. “I think we are in a very, very dangerous situation if too much information is being passed around unnecessarily,” he said.
GCHQ stands for Government Communications Headquarters, which is run in close collaboration with the National Security Agency in the United States.
It is one of three British intelligence agencies, along with the domestic MI5 security unit and the overseas MI6 secret intelligence service. Its operations are conducted mainly from its headquarters near the spa town of Cheltenham, where most of its 5,500 staff members work, according to its Web site.
Information gathered by GCHQ has played a major part in the security service’s efforts to foil purported terrorist plots since the July 7, 2005, London bombings.
British officials have taken to warning that London will be a potential target for terrorism when it hosts the 2012 Olympics this summer, strengthening the case for enhanced powers to intercept communications. But opponents of the proposed legislation are pointing out that the coalition came into office promising to respect individual rights.
Nick Pickles, director of a privacy advocacy group called Big Brother Watch, said “no amount of scare-mongering can hide the fact” that the planned law had been attacked by lawmakers in all major parties. “The government has offered no justification for what is unprecedented intrusion into our lives, nor explained why promises made about civil liberties are being junked,” he said.