Government plans may endanger Net privacy

One in every 500 Internet calls will be monitored if government plans to extend snooping powers to the Web -- by intercepting raw data streams -- become law.

While the recently published e-commerce bill has grabbed the headlines, privacy on the Net is far more threatened by plans to update to the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) according to civil liberty groups and Internet experts.

Home Secretary Jack Straw, announced in June government plans to extend existing powers for law enforcers to bug phones and intercept post to include the interception of email. With the Home Office requiring ISPs to make their systems interception-friendly, ISPs have joined with civil liberty organisations to condemn the plans.

Malcolm Hutty, director of human rights group Liberty, believes government plans to put a "black box" on every ISP network are "hideously expensive, technically unworkable and a threat to civil liberties". The extent to which the government wants to snoop on Net traffic has led him to question whether it is criminals they are after or ordinary citizens. "One line in every 500 either means either one in every 500 people in the UK is working for the IRA or it is a power-grab by the government. This is pretty much my worse nightmare and there is no good excuse for it," he said. With an interception system in place, "government could be checking on people's tax returns or anything else they fancy keeping an eye on," Hutty believes.

Richard Clayton, Internet expert at Demon Internet, is concerned that government plans to allow smaller ISPs less stringent interception powers will create a two-tier Internet with criminals viewing the smaller operators as an easier base for criminal activities. "People will claim that some ISPs are better for monitoring activities than others," he said, creating a "use a smaller ISP to protect your crimes" mentality. "Requirements should be the same across the industry," he added.

Clayton is also concerned about cost. He estimates interception kits will cost Demon over £1m and with network upgrades taking place every year, a further15 percent will be put on the yearly cost of network building. He accuses the government of failing to understand the technical issues and imposing unrealistic costs on service providers.

Clayton agrees with Hutty that IOCA also raises serious civil liberty issues. "The government tells us there is widespread acceptance in society that intercepting criminals is effective but 1 line in every 500 is well beyond the level of interception that is admitted," he said.

LineOne managing director Ajay Chowdhury is worried the laws governing interception of email will not be stringent enough. "My main concern is that it seems the process for intercepting email is far less rigorous than for phone or post," he said. Previously a warrant for interception needed to be obtained from the Secretary of State but the government may relax this to a senior civil servant.

With the growth in popularity of encrypted email, many industry watchers feel any legislation will become irrelevant any way. CEO of Global Market Leo Scheiner believes all email will be encrypted in two years time. "Governments don't understand the Internet and they can legislate as much as they want but the legislation will be hollow," he said. Demon's Clayton agrees that widespread encryption will render the legislation "totally useless".

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