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UK to monitor, store all social-network traffic?

The U.K. government's proposed Interception Modernisation Programme would enforce tracking and retention of all U.K. citizens' Web communications, including IM conversations.
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The U.K. government is considering the mass surveillance and retention of all user communications on social-networking sites, including Facebook, MySpace, and Bebo.

Vernon Coaker, the U.K. Home Office security minister, on Monday said the EU Data Retention Directive, under which Internet service providers must store communications data for 12 months, does not go far enough. Communications such as those on social-networking sites and via instant-messaging services could also be monitored, he said.

"Social-networking sites such as MySpace or Bebo are not covered by the directive," said Coaker, speaking at a meeting of the House of Commons Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee. "That is one reason why the government (is) looking at what we should do about the Intercept(ion) Modernization Program, because there are certain aspects of communications which are not covered by the directive."

Under the EU Data Retention Directive, from March 15, 2009, all U.K. ISPs are required to store customer traffic data for a year. The Interception Modernization Program, or IMP, is a government proposal, introduced last year, for legislation to use mass monitoring of traffic data as an antiterrorism tool.

The IMP has two objectives: that the government use deep-packet inspection to monitor the Web communications of all U.K. citizens; and that all of the traffic data relating to those communications are stored in a centralized government database.

The U.K. government has previously said communications interception is "vital" and has hinted that social-networking sites may be put under surveillance. And responding to a question from Liberal Democrat Parliament member Tom Brake, Coaker said all traffic data on social-networking sites and through instant-messaging services may be harvested and stored.

"The honorable member for Carshalton and Wallington will also know the controversy that currently surrounds the Intercept(ion) Modernization Program," Coaker said. "I look forward to his support when we present (IMP) proposals, which may include requiring the retention of data on Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, and all other similar sites."

Deep-packet inspection, the second strand of the IMP, involves intercepting and examining the contents of all data packets that flow over a network. In Monday's meeting, Coaker said the government still intends to have a consultation on whether to inspect and then store all Internet traffic data in a centralized government database.

"What is the point of having a consultation if, as the honorable gentleman implies, the government (has) already made up (its) mind to have a central database?" Coaker asked. "We have not made up our mind. We have said we will consult on a variety of options."

Opposition to the government's IMP proposal has been fierce. Cambridge University computer security expert Richard Clayton told ZDNet Asia's sister ZDNet UK on Wednesday that the government proposal to monitor social-networking traffic was "extremely intrusive."

"The question is whether it's necessary or proportionate, and the short answer is no, it doesn't look that way," said Clayton. "If the government wants to make us safer, having a few more police on the electronic beat would be a good idea."

Clayton said the problem for the government is that the Data Retention Directive applies only to data held by Internet service providers, but that a large number of people don't use ISPs' systems to communicate, instead using online services such as Web mail and social-networking sites. Servers may be located in different jurisdictions, Clayton said, and data retention times may be short.

"The government wants to collect all of this data on everybody, just in case," Clayton said. "Suppose you use (an e-mail service based in Pakistan), and you blow up the Houses of Parliament. The government would have to persuade the Pakistani authorities to turn over the logs, which may then turn out only to have been retained for three days."

However, Clayton believes that the cost of harvesting this information, which would involve all U.K. Internet infrastructure providers and ISPs having "black boxes" to monitor data, would be prohibitively expensive. Clayton said taxpayers' money would be better spent on the police, who could target investigations to those they suspect of criminal activity, rather than on performing blanket surveillance of everybody.

"To deploy deep-packet inspection equipment isn't cheap--the word 'billion' is appropriate," Clayton said. "It took the Home Office the best part of a year to find 3 million pounds for the Police e-Crime Unit. That's what is wrong with this picture."

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee also opposes the use of deep-packet inspection to inspect people's data. Berners-Lee told ZDNet UK last week that the Internet should not be "snooped" upon.

"If (third parties) are using the data for political ends or commercial interest, there we have to draw the line," Berners-Lee said. "There's a gap between running a successful Internet service and looking inside data packets."

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