British govt planning electronic surveillance programme

Technology: Would enable intel officers to identify who an individual is in contact with,how often,for how long

Written by Agencies | London | Published: April 2, 2012 1:10 am

Every email to your child. Every status update for your friends. Every message to your mistress.

The British government is preparing proposals for a nationwide electronic surveillance network that could potentially keep track of every message sent by any Brit to anyone at any time,an industry official briefed on the government’s moves said Sunday.

Under the planned new law,Internet firms will be required to give intelligence agency,Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) access to communications on demand,in real-time. The British Home Office says the move is key to tackling crime and terrorism,but civil liberties groups have criticised it.

The new law — which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech in May — would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails,calls or messages without a warrant,the BBC reported. But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with,how often and for how long.

In a statement,the Home Office said action was needed to “maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes”. “It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism,” a spokesman said.

“As set out in the Strategic Defence and Security Review we will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to ensure that the use of communications data is compatible with the government’s approach to civil liberties.”

Plans for a massive government database of the country’s phone and email 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.’’

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 or an email.

Generally,authorities request such information during an investigation. A standardised mass-monitoring programme capturing of every email,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.’’

Blessing said it would likely require installation of tens of thousands of specialised pieces of hardware to monitor the country’s Internet traffic. The price tag would run into the billions of pounds,a cost he said would either have to be borne by the taxpayer or by Internet service firms,who would in turn have to pass it on to customers.

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