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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 07:39 GMT 08:39 UK
Warning over wiretaps
Watching while you surf
People could be looking over your shoulder when you surf
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Laws designed to catch computer criminals could result in a huge increase in the amount of covert surveillance carried out on British citizens by the police and intelligence services.

The controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act requires many companies providing communication services to install technology that allows up to one in 10,000 of their customers to be watched at the same time.

Experts and lobby groups fear that this requirement could drive a "tenfold" increase in the number of wiretaps and threaten the fundamental rights to privacy of many citizens.

But the government said just because it would soon be possible to covertly watch thousands of people using phones, fax machines and the net, this did not mean that all these potential wiretaps will actually be used.

People watching

Last year the government pushed through the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which was intended to update existing legislation to cope with the migration of life into more electronic forms.

The Act also made it easier for law enforcement agencies to carry out surveillance on computer-savvy criminals, and to get hold of keys to unscramble encrypted data.


The agendas being pursued here are not police agendas but intelligence agendas

Tim Snape
The Act was criticised almost from the moment it was drafted by privacy watchdogs, lobby groups and business leaders.

They said it gave too much power to police and intelligence services, placed too few safeguards on their actions, eroded rights to privacy and placed a heavy burden on companies forced to comply with it.

Just how heavy a burden is now becoming clear.

Section 12 of the RIP Act requires many large Communication Service Providers (any company offering telecommunication, net or data services) to put in place links to a government monitoring centre so law enforcement agencies can quickly turn on wiretaps to start watching suspects.

The government is currently talking to all the organisations who will have to comply with this requirement on how to do it.

Under current proposals large CSPs could be forced to install enough equipment to concurrently monitor one in 10,000 of their customers. The consultation period ends on 24 August.

Watching worries

Security experts, net thinktanks and lobby groups are worried that this demand could drive a huge increase in the number of wiretaps and the amount of covert surveillance carried out every year.

"It could allow a tenfold increase in the current level of interceptions that are going on," said Caspar Bowden, director of internet thinktank the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

According to the most recent figures, the government currently issues over 2000 interception warrants every year. If the one in 10,000 figure survives the consultation process, the amount of surveillance the government could carry out every year could rocket.

BT would have to install equipment to monitor over 2000 people just for its 21 million domestic customers. More equipment would have to be put in place to monitor business customers, or those using its mobile phones or net services.

The only organisations exempt are CSPs servicing financial companies.

Suspicious activity

"The agendas being pursued here are not police agendas but intelligence agendas," said Tim Snape, head of West Dorset Internet and a member of the industry committees debating the regulations.

He fears that the intelligence services will be able to carry out "trawling" expeditions to look for suspicious activity rather than restrict surveillance to individuals as they are forced to do now.

CCTV camera
Experts fear an explosion in surveillance
But a Home Office spokesman said just because there was the potential to covertly watch thousands of citizens did not mean the government would actually use all of it.

He said: "The capacity maybe there but there's no indication that it would all be used."

He added that that one in 10,000 figure was a "maximum" and the restrictions the RIP Act places on the issuing of interception warrants would likely limit the amount of wiretapping carried out.

Net experts dispute this interpretation and said that the RIP Act actually makes it easier for police forces to get initial approval for surveillance and to renew warrants.

Assistant Information Commissioner Francis Aldhouse said: "Interceptions should be authorised by judicial warrant, but that's not the policy that has been adopted."

He added that any interference with communications is interference with a fundamental human right guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights which is already part of UK law.

See also:

18 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
Cybercops arrest online liberty
05 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Snooping bill 'will harm business'
18 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Cybercrime treaty condemned
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