Home & Office

UK 'to announce' real-time phone, email, Web traffic monitoring

UK government plans to allow the intelligence services analyse call, email and Web traffic in "real-time" could be announced by the Queen as early as May.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

Editors note: Despite this being April 1, or 'April Fools Day', this story is not a fabrication nor a joke. For background to this story, head this way.

Under new UK legislation, Internet service and broadband providers will be obligated to pass personal browsing, email and call data to the intelligence services for real-time processing.

"Internet firms" could also include social networks and search engines, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google --- all of which have a presence in the UK --- along with broadband providers. Access to ISP logs will be opened up to the government on-demand.


The 'third' UK intelligence service, GCHQ, the signals and electronics eavesdropping station based in Cheltenham, currently process call, web, and email data, such as when communications were made, but not the contents of such data.

ISPs, however, do process this data at their facilities and datacenters. These new plans would force ISPs to 'mirror' all traffic through GCHQ allowing for more detailed inspection on a law enforcement level to quickly process information as it happens.

A Home Office spokesperson confirmed the upcoming legislation could be implemented as "soon as parliamentary time allows".

"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," a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

"Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of Government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications."

Currently under UK law, GCHQ along with police and other law enforcement agencies, would have to present a Home Secretary-issued or court-ordered search warrant to ISPs to force to hand over the data for inspection.

The new legislation would still require a search warrant to access the specific details of calls, emails and Web activity. Such personal content can still be requested under a search warrant presented to the ISP, though GCHQ will not process this data automatically.

But it will allow the intelligence services to trace people's communications with others, who they are contacting, and how often for.

The “contact not content” rule applies in that police, law enforcement and intelligence services are interested in who people communicate with, rather than the contents of the communication itself.

But the new measures would force ISPs to install routing hardware in their facilities to open up access to GCHQ as and when it is necessary.

The legislation is expected to be announced at the Queen's Speech in May. The speech is the only communication the Queen gives that is not written by her. It is written by legislators, specifically at Downing Street, the home and office of the prime minister.

The previous Labour government pushed for similar legislation --- a time post the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, and the July 7 London bombings. In hindsight, it seemed like a breach of civil liberties, in an age where subjective anti-social behaviour (ASBO) injunctions could prevent individuals from doing certain things along with when and in specific places, and control orders would impose 'house arrest' like sanctions on suspected terrorists.

The proposals were shot down by the then opposition Conservative government, but now in power seek to bring these plans into law by the end of the year.

Image credit: Carolina Alves/Flickr.


Editorial standards