MI5 is building a new £25m e-mail surveillance centre that will have the power to monitor all e-mails and internet messages sent and received in Britain. The government is to require internet service providers, such as Freeserve and AOL, to have “hardwire” links to the new computer facility so that messages can be traced across the internet.
The security service and the police will still need Home Office permission to search for e-mails and internet traffic, but they can apply for general warrants that would enable them to intercept communications for a company or an organisation.
The new computer centre, codenamed GTAC – government technical assistance centre – which will be up and running by the end of the year inside MI5’s London headquarters, has provoked concern among civil liberties groups. “With this facility, the government can track every website that a person visits, without a warrant, giving rise to a culture of suspicion by association,” said Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.
The government already has powers to tap phone lines linking computers, but the growth of the internet has made it impossible to read all material. By requiring service providers to install cables that will download material to MI5, the government will have the technical capability to read everything that passes over the internet.
Home Office officials say the centre is needed to tackle the use of the internet and mobile phone networks by terrorists and international crime gangs.Charles Clark, the minister in charge of the spy centre project, said it would allow police to keep pace with technology.
“Hardly anyone was using the internet or mobile phones 15 years ago,” a Home Office source said. “Now criminals can communicate with each other by a huge array of devices and channels and can encrypt their messages, putting them beyond the reach of conventional eavesdropping.”
There has been an explosion in the use of the internet for crime in Britain and across the world, leading to fears in western intelligence agencies that they will soon be left behind as criminals abandon the telephone and resort to encrypted e-mails to run drug rings and illegal prostitution and immigration rackets.
The new spy centre will decode messages that have been encrypted. Under new powers due to come into force this summer, police will be able to require individuals and companies to hand over computer “keys”, special codes that unlock scrambled messages.
There is controversy over how the costs of intercepting internet traffic should be shared between government and industry. Experts estimate that the cost to Britain’s 400 service providers will be £30m in the first year. Internet companies say that this is too expensive, especially as many are making losses.
About 15m people in Britain have internet access. Legal experts have warned that many are unguarded in the messages they send or the material they download, believing that they are safe from prying eyes.
“The arrival of this spy centre means that Big Brother is finally here,” said Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes. “The balance between the state and individual privacy has swung too far in favour of the state.”