ISPs kept in dark about UK's plans to intercept Twitter

ISPs have not been formally consulted on an expansion of government plans that will log who is talking to whom on social networks, gaming platforms and other online sites
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The government has expanded its plans to store and monitor Twitter, Facebook and other personal web communication data, but these are being created without official ISP involvement, according to an ISP representative body.

Under the plans, police and intelligence operatives will gain access to records of who has talked to whom on social networks, on instant messaging services, and in online multi-player games. The monitoring and storage are expected to be handled by ISPs, but the government's plans have not been officially shared with these companies, according to the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA).

"It is important that proposals to update government's capabilities to intercept and retain communications data in the new communications environment are proportionate, respect freedom of expression and the privacy of users, and are widely consulted upon in an open and transparent manner," the ISPA said in a statement on Monday.

Plans to expand existing government interception capabilities are being produced by a Home Office group called the Communications Capabilities Directorate under the Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP), which cost at least £14m to set up.

The government will publish its web intercept plans by the end of April 2012 and wants legislation by the end of June 2015, according to Home Office documents published in January. After lobbying by the security services, ministers have decided to set aside legislative time for the CCDP via the Queen's Speech in May, The Daily Telegraph said in a report on Saturday.

However, the Home Office declined to confirm this, saying only that legislation is on the cards. "We will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows to ensure that the use of communications data is compatible with the Government's approach to civil liberties," a Home Office spokesperson told ZDNet UK.

The Home Office also stressed that it canvasses opinion from communications providers on its plans. "It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public," the Home Office spokesperson said. "We meet regularly with the communications industry to ensure that capability is maintained without interfering with the public's right to privacy."

Expanding remit 

"The government seems to be looking at expanding its [interception] remit, but this is not something we've been directly told," an ISPA spokesman told ZDNet UK on Monday. "We'd hope for some kind of cost recovery."

Costs associated with the collection of web data include the cost of the 'black box' equipment ISPs would need to intercept all web communications, plus the cost of regularly updating algorithms to intercept web communications, according to LSE security expert Peter Sommer.

An ISP only sees a stream of data going into a particular home hub, and the data needs to be sorted out. Is it communications data or content? Are you asking ISPs to retain everything?
– Peter Sommer

"Companies like Facebook and Twitter regularly update their communications protocols," said Sommer. "Who are you going to get to update the [interception] algorithms? [Costs are] really a question of 'How long is a piece string?'"

Sommer outlined a multiplicity of technical issues with the government's web interception proposals. As with the Labour government's Interception Modernisation Programme, the issue of sorting the content of web communications from its metadata would be thorny, said Sommer.

"An ISP only sees a stream of data going into a particular home hub, and the data needs to be sorted out," said Sommer. "Is it communications data or content? Are you asking ISPs to retain everything?"

The government plans suggest that law enforcement would have to be given access to the data in a reasonable time frame, said Sommer.

"The plans imply the data is reasonably accessible and of a reasonable quality, not stuck on tapes in a cupboard on an industrial estate miles from anywhere," said Sommer. "There are practical problems quite aside from civil liberties issues."

Government commitment

Home Office minister James Brokenshire said on 9 February that the government was "committed to a free and open internet".

"It is also important that law enforcement has the necessary capabilities to assess and identify potential criminality disclosed through social media and other online communication platforms," Brokenshire said in a written parliamentary answer.

"Work is under way to consider how existing capabilities within law enforcement can be enhanced. We will consider any additional resource requirements in the light of this work."

BT said it would follow whatever legislation the government drew up.

"BT adheres to all legislation applying to its activities and co-operates fully with law enforcement agencies," the company said in a statement on Monday.

In 2010, the government issued 1,682 warrants to intercept communications, up from 1,514 in 2009, according to the Interception of Communications Commissioner (PDF).

The Home Office had not responded to requests for comment at the time of writing.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.
Editorial standards