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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Switch on for state snooping
Network cables, Eyewire
Police forces want to plug in to lots of networks
From August net service providers in the UK will be obliged to carry out surveillance of some customers' web habits on behalf of the police.

Controversial laws passed in 2000 oblige large communications companies to install technology that allows one in 10,000 of their customers to be watched.

The information gathered about what people look at on the web, the content of e-mail messages and their phone conversations will be passed to the police or a government monitoring station.

The demands have been criticised by experts who say the law conflicts with basic guarantees of privacy and that the government is not doing enough to help pay for the installation of the surveillance systems.

Data hoover

The controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was passed in October 2000 and gave law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to snoop on the electronic lives of citizens.


It's the internet equivalent of a telephone tap

Roland Perry, Linx
The Act demands that organisations it dubs Communication Service Providers (CSP) - broadly anyone that helps people keep in touch via the web, fax machine or phone - install technology that can automatically monitor what many of their customers are doing.

It also demands that service providers start monitoring a customer within 24 hours of being told that the police or other investigation agencies want to snoop on them.

The information collected must also be passed on electronically to the agency which asked for the snooping to start.

A spokesman for the Home Office said 1 August was the day on which the new surveillance regime would start, even though the technology to do the watching are yet to be installed.

He said only law enforcement agencies would have the power to ask for the surveillance to start.

Police would have to get a warrant from the Home Office before they could ask for surveillance to start, he said, and it would only be used to gather evidence about serious crimes.

Data delivery

Roland Perry, public policy director for the London Internet Exchange which interconnects the networks of net service companies, said the government was still working out how best to put the surveillance systems in place.

"It's a very long-term project," he said. "The whole thing will be done on a one-to-one basis with the individual companies concerned."


Agencies have to make a judgement whether it's worth making a request if it costs a few hundred pounds to do it

Ian Brown, Foundation for Information Policy Research
The government is also currently working out what types of information it wants from CSPs and how it will be delivered.

"In theory, an interception capability would deliver all the data," said Mr Perry. "It's the internet equivalent of a telephone tap."

The government is hoping that its work on automatic surveillance will become a European standard and be widely adopted.

Costly communication

Service providers have asked for help to buy the equipment needed to set up the permanent interception capability.

Crowd of people. BBC
Up to 1 in 10,000 could be monitored
"The Home Office has said it would contribute 20m to this but the net industry has said it will cost a lot more than that," said Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

The Internet Service Providers Association has warned about the potentially huge costs of installing surveillance equipment to meet the demands of the RIP Act and the recently passed Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act.

A spokesman for the organisation said it was still seeking clarification over the types of data its members were supposed to be catching, how long it had to be stored for and who would pay for the storage.

Mr Brown said one of the few safeguards on the snooping system was the fact that the agencies asking for the surveillance to be carried out will be charged to use it.

"This means agencies have to make a judgement whether it's worth making a request if it costs a few hundred pounds to do it," said Mr Brown.

See also:

17 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
11 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
18 Jun 02 | Politics
30 May 02 | Science/Nature
24 Jun 02 | dot life
15 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
18 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
26 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
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