Big Brother in the black box

From Russia to Britain to the US, law enforcement is trying new methods to counter cybercrime. And civil rights activists are up in arms

Governments world wide are attempting to increase surveillance powers in an effort to crack down on Internet-related crimes. However, the latest tool in the war against online crimes and illicit attacks on networks has international privacy advocates up in arms.

The so-called "black box" -- in reality, a computer in its own secured case -- may soon be required by the British government to be connected to the networks of Internet service providers. Running modified intrusion detection programs, the boxes will be capable of "sniffing" traffic between the ISP and citizens' computers, gleaning information upon demand.

Russia has already embarked on a similar project. In the United States, meanwhile, some ISPs are vowing to resist the FBI's new Carnivore surveillance system, which has the potential to keep tabs on all of the communications on an ISP's network.

Intelligence agencies stress that the black boxes will help them fight computer hackers. Opponents counter that, not only will the boxes be ineffective in practice, the snooping tools could easily be abused.

"The capability is there to spy on everyone," said Yaman Akdeniz, director of CyberRights & CyberLiberties, a prominent British campaigner, who is concerned that an increase in surveillance powers could be open to covert abuse, a topic of much concern following recent revelations regarding Echelon. "Whether they do or not is the question. I think nobody trusts the security services now."

Britain already has legislation on the table that would put such a snooping network in place. Prime minister Tony Blair's Labour government has been battling with civil liberties advocates for months over the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, which requires British ISPs to install black box devices.

Under the RIP Bill, British police will have the right to intercept email traffic with a warrant. Intercepted traffic will be sent to the new Technical Assistance Centre, operated by MI5.

The Home Office and British police insist the Bill will prove a telling weapon for fighting hackers. "The reason we support the RIP Bill," says a representative from Scotland Yard's Computer Crime Unit, "is that it gives us some means to fight hacking. This is seen to be growing from recreational hacking to more serious crime. There is even the potential for political hacking."

The Russian government has gone even further, using a regulatory change from an existing agency to implement a network of black boxes.

In Russia, the System of Ensuring Investigative Activity (Sorm), introduced new regulations effective since February, requiring ISPs to install the black boxes that re-route traffic to the headquarters of FSB (Federal Security Service), which recently replaced the Russian intelligence service, the KGB.

Russia's black boxes will be used mainly to catch criminals ranging from "tax evaders to paedophiles", according to the FSB, although Russia has often been celebrated as international hotbed of hacking.

"We Russians don't drink any more. We now work on computers, we use computers to send viruses to the West and then we poach your money. We have the best hackers in the world," ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky once famously commented on live television.

Go to Pt II/ Virtual police state

Take me to the Summer of Hacking Special

Take me to Hackers

Find out who's spying on you and how they're doing it in our exclusive Echelon News Special.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.