The State Opening of Parliament in London last week was a grand occasion. Her Majesty the Queen donned the Crown Jewels and rode in state, escorted by her Foot and Horse Guards, to the Palace of Westminster. There, before the assembled Peers and Members, she read the Queen's Speech, laying out the legislative programme for the new session of Parliament.
Her Majesty read from specially prepared goatskin vellum on which her speech was handwritten in ink that takes three days to dry. The time-honored and time-consuming process contrasted starkly with the chilling brevity of her statement: "My government intends to bring forward measures to maintain the ability of the law enforcement and intelligence agencies to access vital communications data under strict safeguards to protect the public, subject to scrutiny of draft clauses."
That signals the government's intention to record and monitor the time, date, source, target, and (where available) location of every landline or mobile phone call and every Internet access attempt made in or across the UK.
The proposed legislation will come into force in 2015, a long gestation time for an old idea. In fact, the powers proposed already exist. The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009
gave the Home Secretary the power to require communication services providers (CSPs) to capture and store “Communications Data,” a term covering "Internet access, Internet e-mail and Internet telephony, as well as mobile and fixed line telephony.”
All the Home Secretary has to do is write to each CSP and they must comply.
But the regulations give no indication of how best to capture and store communications data. The government of 2009 launched the Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) to fill the gap. IMP initially included the creation of a central database of all communications data -- and was universally derided. Then it was decided to make CSPs responsible for capture and storage of traffic data.
In a thoughtful briefing on the IMP, the London School of Economics pointed out that recording and monitoring all the needed information would require not just deep packet inspection (DPI) equipment but also algorithms to separate communications data from content. Further complicating things is that it is not always clear what constitutes content. (Think of the URL for the result of a Google search that contains the search term itself, which can be invaluable to the eavesdropper.)
IMP was opposed across the political spectrum, including the Conservative and LibDem opposition, who however revived it when they came to power, renaming it the Communications Capabilities Development Programme. But the announcement, and its £2 billion (US$3.2 billion) budget, were buried deep in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, and little notice was taken until the proposed new legislation surfaced.
The objections given above still apply, despite Her Majesty's endorsement. Probably more so, considering the growth and complexity of social networking. Government cutbacks have made everyone aware of the need for economic stringency. There is no increased threat that anyone is aware of, and, according to a Home Office statement, the only benefit accruing will be to the police and intelligence services.
So why is the government intent on doing this? In a clip of Theresa May, the Home Secretary, being questioned on the proposals by a committee of MPs (see the last 10 minutes -- 13:46 onward), she replies to a question about the use of DPI kit and decryption, saying these are "technical details," which are outside her remit. Not only does she not know, she does not even think she should know.
Either May is being very disingenuous, or she really is unaware and, what is worse, badly briefed.
Both Parliament and the Civil Service are technical and technological deserts, which makes keeping government and legislation abreast of technological change difficult if not impossible. It also opens up the possibility of abuse and manipulation by those with strong agendas and access to ministers, as government projects regularly demonstrate.
I cannot see significant change occurring here in less than a generation, but it would be some comfort to know that others are learning and profiting by our demonstration that ignoring the technology is no way to run a democracy in the age of the Internet.
— George Taylor worked in IT in both public and private sectors for over 20 years. He is a Subject of the Crown.