U.K. moves forward with comprehensive eavesdropping scheme

firm which has close ties to the intelligence agencies. The sources said Iain Lobban, the GCHQ director, is overseeing the construction of a massive new complex inside the agency’s “doughnut” headquarters on the outskirts of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.

A huge room of super-computers will help the agency to monitor — and record — data passing through black-box probes placed at critical traffic junctions with Internet service providers and telephone companies, allowing GCHQ to spy at will.

An industry insider, who could not discuss the program because he had signed the Official Secrets Act, admitted that the project would mark a step change in the agency’s powers of surveillance. At the moment the agency is able to use probes to monitor the content of calls and e-mails sent by specific individuals who are the subject of police or security service investigations.

Every interception must be authorized by a warrant signed by the home secretary or a minister of equivalent rank.

The new GCHQ Internet-monitoring network will shift the focus of the surveillance state away from a few hundred targeted people to everyone in the United Kingdom. “Although the paper [work] does not say it, its clear implication is that those kinds of probes should be extended to cover the entire population for the purposes of monitoring communications data,” said the industry source.

GCHQ placed an advertisement in the trade IT press for a head of major contracts to be given “operational responsibility for the ‘Mastering the Internet’ (MTI) contract.” The senior official, to be paid an annual salary of up to £100,000, would lead the procurement of the hardware and the analysis tools needed to build and run the system.

Cabinet ministers have said they do not intend to snoop on the actual content of e-mails or telephone calls. The monitoring will instead focus on who an individual is communicating with or which Web sites and chat rooms they are visiting.

Advocates of the black-box system say it is essential if the authorities are to keep pace with the communications revolution. They say terrorists are stateless, highly mobile, and their communications are difficult to detect among the billions of pieces of data passing through the Internet.

Leppard and Williams say that last year about 14 percent of telephone calls were made using VoIP systems such as Skype. A report by a group of privy counselors predicts that most calls will be made via the Internet within five years. GCHQ said it did not want to discuss how the data it gathered would be used.