The great RIP-off
The arrival of the much vaunted ADSL service was matched with news that MI5 (Military Intelligence, group 5 - responsible for domestic affairs, usually counter-terrorism) are to purpose build an high-tech centre for the sole purpose of monitoring internet activity.
This Orwellian wet-dream has become reality for millions of UK surfers. The news was first reported in the Sunday Times (London) newspaper.
The centre, codenamed GTAC, Government Technical Assistance Centre, is rumoured to cost around GBP £25m and will monitor all email traffic in the United Kingdom. In practice, this means mail into and out of the UK, in addition to intra-UK mail, will be subjected to monitoring by HM Government.
Information is available on ZDnet's site at http://www.zdnet.co.uk/news/2000/17/ns-15104.html (opens in a new window)
We should not forget that monitoring web page access, particularly to sites that might be described as 'fringe', subversive or illegal, could lead to the authorities targeting law-abiding citizens as potential terrorists or criminals. Is this a form of censorship?
UK based ISPs are already required to hand over access logs to the authorities and will now be forced to provide direct access to their networks for GTAC. The cost of providing these facilities will be borne by the ISPs themselves and is said to be around GBP £30m in the first year alone - a move which they are not entirely happy with.
The newly enacted RIP bill (Regulation of Investigatory Powers) gives law enforcement authorities the power to demand access to cryptography keys in order to decode encrypted messages. Failure to surrender the keys will lead to a two year prison sentence without parole and without leave to appeal.
Worthy of note is that the authorities only require Home Office permission, not a warrant, in order to either request or seize cryptographic keys. Neither permission, nor warrant, is required for monitoring web access.
This is surely a dark day for the Internet, not only in the United Kingdom. The reader is reminded that HMG as a whole, including MI5 and MI6, have an intelligence sharing arrangement with the United States. This agreement could see sensitive corporate data fall into the hands of foreign competitors to British business through this trans-Atlantic alliance.
The Home Office says that these new powers are essential to combat modern crime. The Internet, they say, is awash with ne'er-do-wells, waiting to steal your credit card number, sell you some drugs, or pimp your daughter.
The reality of the situation is that these new draconian powers give the authorities to snoop on the legitimate business of private individuals and corporations without warrant and with impunity.
At the moment, police officers actively use the PNC (Police National Computer) and NCIS (National Criminal Intelligence Service) to snoop on their friends, neighbours and almost anyone with whom they come into contact, professionally or otherwise. With these new extra powers, they can read your email and will know that you visit sites such as this one. Will we see cases of guilt by association over the internet?
Will The Big Brother and Conspiracy Theory Reference become a 'target' site? Is it one already?
The Sunday Times reported that GTAC will have the ability to decode encrypted messages. I'm not so sure I believe this. If MI5/GTAC really are able to decrypt messages, then why the need for the RIP bill?
I cannot help but be convinced that this is disinformation aimed solely at breeding Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) amongst the general public. They want you to believe that they have the power to see everything, when in fact they do not. Don't fall into the trap of believing everything you are told - the Whitehall spin doctors are hard at work.
Laws are broken by criminals. If the police ask a drug-dealer to hand over the private keys so they can read his email, is he likely to comply? If convicted of a Class A drug offence, he is likely to receive a much longer sentence than he would receive for not handing over a cryptographic key. Even if he does comply, any serious criminal is hardly likely to list names, places or events by their real names, even in decrypted form.
Are the authorities shifting their emphasis away from quality policing and towards a quantity approach? Are we about to witness a large number of people being convicted of newly created offences - boosting police crime statistics. Not just boosting... rendering them meaningless - though they are very close to that now anyway. Only time will tell.
As a means of catching 'hard' criminals, this tool is totally pointless and a huge waste of taxpayers money. As a means to prying into ordinary peoples lives, it is invaluable. The very people that these new laws are supposed to catch are the people who will not be caught by such systems.
Once again, HMG imposes draconian laws to spy on her own citizens. The unseen Whitehall civil-servants who are 'above the law' and answer to no-one in action again?
One thing is for certain - Big Brother has definitely arrived.
The full text of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill can be read from HMG's Stationery Office website at http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199900/cmbills/064/2000064.htm#aofs
What can I do about it?
BBCTR is here to help. Our advice is to encrypt everything. If you only encrypt certain emails, you're advertising that something important is contained within it - this makes it likely to become a target. By encrypting everything, no importance can be associated with any message.
There are a wide variety of cryptographic tools available - many of them are free, such as PGP, arguably the strongest form of public-key encryption available today. Other software allows the encoding of text inside a GIF or JPG image - a casual observer, or MI5, would have to know that a message was coded in the picture in order to stand any chance of finding it.
We mustn't forget one of the simplest forms of coding a message - simply to use 'alternative' words which will only be understood correctly by the intended recipient. For example 'the sun is shining' could mean 'all is well' to an appropriately prepared recipient. To you or me... it's a nice day and we can't tell that there is a second message.
Such tactics were used during the Cold War to get messages to operatives in the field. Small advertisements would be run in certain newspapers - or in certain cases, a special phrase or article appeared on a national newspaper front page, such was the importance of the message.
The reader should also bear in mind that the use of 'profiling' is likely to become very commonplace - you could be 'targetted' for close surveillance because of a group of unrelated 'key' words, such as 'bomb' or 'eco-terrorism' placed in a email, or simply by the websites you or someone else visited from your computer.
Still worried? High-tech, or 'knowledge' employee? Consider emigrating to a less authoritarian country.
Paranoid? You aren't paranoid enough.
Disclaimer: BBCTR does not advocate law-breaking in any form. You must ensure that you comply with your local laws.
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Vendemen - 2 May 2000