A Year Ago: Government plans e-surveillance

First published: Mon, 27 Sep 1999 11:25:05 GMT

At the heart of the surveillance debate is the proposed Interception of Communications Act, which, if it is made law, will give the police access to all electronic communications. Jane Wakefield exposes the truth behind one of the most controversial bills in Britain's digital age.

IOCA (Interception of Communications Act) was drawn up in 1985, giving the police power to intercept telephone calls. But the government says the current bill needs updating to allow interception of email and Internet traffic.

According to the government, interception is vital to prevent crime. There are strict guidelines governing interception which can only take place in the following circumstances:

  • If it is in the interests of national security

  • If it is for the purpose of detecting or preventing serious crime

  • If it is for the purpose of safeguarding the economic well-being of the UK

Critics argue the definitions are too vague. For example, a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose is one definition of a serious crime. According to Robin Bynoe, partner with law firm Charles Russell this could open people involved in a lawful protest to interception.

The revised IOCA proposes two types of interception:

  • The interception of email

  • The bulk interception of Internet traffic

The government wants the power to intercept one in every 500 Internet transmissions made, a figure which has even law enforcers surprised. ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) spokesman on the Internet Keith Akerman confesses he is "amazed" by the amount of surveillance being proposed. (See also: "Privacy versus policework -- the debate".)

Following ZDNet's interview with Akerman, Nicholas Bohm, lawyer and e-commerce advisor civil liberties organisation Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties, suggested that the real agenda behind IOCA is being set by intelligence agency GCHQ. The agency denied the suggestion: "That is not an appropriate question," said a spokeswoman. "The Home Office draws up the law and our main concern is that we work to it," she added.

Asked if GCHQ needed to apply for a warrant from the Secretary of State to carry out surveillance the spokeswoman said: "In some instances we need warrants, in some we don't."

While GCHQ maintains a veil of secrecy over IOCA, ISPs' response to the proposals is unequivocal. Their main concern is the cost the government will impose on them in order to implement the snooping technology. Demon Internet's "Internet guru", Richard Clayton, said it will cost his firm £1m to set up the necessary equipment.

IOCA will also force ISPs to hand over email and telephone records if requested by the police. This was a voluntary agreement drawn up by ACPO and the ISP Forum with ISPs able to refuse requests for customer information if they did not think it was appropriate. Under the new proposals for IOCA that right will be lost.

As well as preventing crime, powers granted by the new IOCA can be used "for the assessment or collection of tax".

Part 2

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