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Thursday, 6 June, 2002, 08:27 GMT 09:27 UK
Questions over net snooping centre
MI5 headquarters are in London
Centre will be based at MI5 headquarters
A controversial internet snooping centre to be opened in the summer by the UK Government could cause more problems than it solves, experts say.

The National Technical Assistance Centre (NTAC) will decrypt computer data and intercepted internet and e-mail traffic as part of a drive against cyber-crime, reports the technology news magazine, Computing.

It follows a much-criticised law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which came into force in October 2000 and gave law enforcers sweeping powers to spy on internet communications.

However, government plans to foil cyber criminals could backfire, according to a member of the Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA), Stephen Dyer.

"It could prove counter-productive. If the government is being seen as taking encryption seriously then it will drive criminals to use encryption more," he said.

"Modern encryption is almost uncrackable, especially in the timescale needed to stop a crime," he added.

Much to do

NTAC is also running into other obstacles, as the RIP Act it is designed to enforce undergoes some serious rewrites.


The government wants to plug into the internet and grab everything they want from it

Stephen Dyer, ISPA
Experts argue that the law was rushed through parliament without consultation with industry and as a result is unworkable.

Earlier in the year, the government admitted that the complex process of obtaining encryption keys had not yet fully been worked out and a public consultation would be necessary.

Without a quick and easy way of getting hold of encryption keys, NTAC would "be dead in the water", said Mr Dyer.

Black boxes

NTAC will also depend on a controversial network of black boxes, installed in internet networks and feeding directly into the MI5 building, where the centre will be based.

The idea of such boxes caused outrage when it was suggested. Despite being included in the RIP Act, no internet service provider (ISP) has yet been required by government to install such a surveillance system.

Officials now admit that secondary legislation will be necessary before ISPs can be made to install black boxes.

Even then, ISPs will have recourse to an independent body if they feel it is too costly which could mean significant delays.

Without such boxes, it will be impossible for NTAC will get its hands on web communications.

Ultimately, the government's plans for NTAC might be just too ambitious, said Mr Dyer.

"The government wants to plug into the internet and grab everything they want from it. That might work for the intelligence services but I'm not sure it will for law enforcement," he said.

Loss of intelligence

Despite this the government insists that NTAC is a necessary tool in its fight against cyber-crime.

"Without an appropriate response, rapid developments in information technology with communications increasingly travelling from computer-to-computer and information protected by encryption will lead to a considerable loss of intelligence from lawfully intercepted communications and evidence from lawfully seized material," read a Home Office statement.

Much of NTAC's resources will go into tracking terrorist activity and paedophiles, both of which use the web to communicate.

The drive to step up surveillance of the internet has increased since the terrorist attacks on 11 September.

In May, the European Parliament voted in favour of forcing phone companies and internet service providers to retain for years logs on what all their customers are doing.

See also:

30 May 02 | Science/Nature
18 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
10 Feb 00 | Science/Nature
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