U.K. moves forward with comprehensive eavesdropping scheme

Published 4 May 2009

The U.K. government announced last week that it was abandoning the plan to create a centralized super-database in which the personal information of Britons will be kept — but a £1 billion intelligence gathering project is moving forward; the scheme will monitor all all e-mails, Web site visits, and social networking sessions in Britain

U.K.’s intelligence services are pressing ahead with secret plans to monitor all Internet use and telephone calls in Britain despite an announcement by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith of a ministerial climbdown over public surveillance. Sunday Times’s David Leppard and Chris Williams report that GCHQ, the government’s eavesdropping center, is developing classified technology to intercept and monitor all e-mails, Web site visits, and social networking sessions in Britain. The agency will also be able to track telephone calls made over the Internet, as well as all phone calls to land lines and mobiles (the U.S. intelligence community is also interested in developing programs which can eavesdrop on VoIP telephony; see “NSA May Offer ‘Billions’ for a Solution Allowing Eavesdropping on Skype,” 13 February 2009 HS Daily Wire, and “Intelligence, Law Enforcement Face Another Hurdle: Encrypted VoIP,” 26 February 2009 HS Daily Wire). The £1 billion snooping project — called Mastering the Internet (MTI) — will rely on thousands of “black box” probes being covertly inserted across online infrastructure.

The top-secret program began to be implemented last year, but its existence has been inadvertently disclosed through a GCHQ job advertisement carried in the computer trade press.

Last week, in what appeared to be a concession to privacy campaigners, Smith announced that she was ditching controversial plans for a single “big brother” database to store centrally all communications data in Britain (“U.K. Government Drops Central Database Scheme,” 27 April 2009 HS Daily Wire). “The government recognized the privacy implications of the move [and] therefore does not propose to pursue this move,” she said.

Smith received favorable headlines when she announced that up to £2 billion of public money would instead be spent helping private Internet and telephone companies to retain information for up to 12 months in separate databases. Leppard and Williams write that she failed to mention that substantial additional sums — amounting to more than £1 billion over three years — had already been allocated to GCHQ for its MTI program.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said Smith’s announcement appeared to be a “smokescreen.”

We opposed the big brother database because it gave the state direct access to everybody’s communications. But this network of black boxes achieves the same thing via the back door,” Chakrabarti said.

Informed sources told the Times’s reporters that a £200 million contract has been awarded to Lockheed Martin, the American defense giant. A second contract has been given to Detica, the British IT