A top-secret program being developed by British spymasters soon may allow them to snoop on every computer, text message and phone call in the United Kingdom, according to plans revealed this week.
The Interception Modernization Program is part of a $20 billion effort being pushed by GCHQ, the government’s secret eavesdropping agency, according to the Times of London. It easily would be the largest surveillance system ever created in Britain, and quite possibly any Western democracy.
The British already have a sophisticated closed-circuit TV (CCTV) system that covers large metropolitan areas of the country. The linked system of cameras with full pan, tilt, zoom, and infrared capability allows continuous surveillance in central business districts.
Tens of thousands of other cameras available to the police operate in phone booths, vending machines, buses, trains, taxis, alongside motorways and inside automatic teller machines. Using a technology called automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), the system can store license plate numbers into databases to determine the movement of suspect cars.
Now the country’s two major spy services, MI-5 and MI-6, want to carry that capability into mobile phones and computers, reported the Daily Express of London. The goal is a “live tap” on every electronic communication in Britain. Critics say it will dwarf CCTV, ANPR and literally record the data usage of every person in the U.K.
The nation’s spy bosses have told British officials that a system is needed to “capture” the array of communications between terrorists planning to attack Britain. Draft e-mails, chat-room discussions and internet browsing on encrypted jihadist websites are the preferred forums for al-Qaida cells to plan their attacks. They make up “friendship trees” in which separate terror cells communicate with one another.
British conservatives and civil libertarains are especially concerned about the ethical implications of granting such power to government agencies with little oversight.
“This would be a massive infringement of human rights,” conservative councillor Jacky Fletcher told reporters.
“I am all in favor of policing and I believe there do need to be special measures in place to track terror suspects,” Fletcher said. “But those measures already exist. You can get court orders to track messages and other things for limited periods of time.”
There are 18 million broadband internet connections in the United Kingdom, while 57 billion texts and three billion emails are sent each year.
In the UK, telephone and internet companies must give details of calls or Web use to law enforcement agencies if a senior officer certifies that it is needed for an investigation. For the security services, a minister must give approval; for the police, a chief constable.
In the United States, meanwhile, obtaining permission to tap is harder. The government requires a special order approved by FBI officials to demand data on telephone calls and internet use. To intercept communications, the FBI needs a court order.
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