Is the UK Government about to turn world class hacker? It's going to have to if the Germans succeed in getting their domestic programme of planting Trojans onto suspects computers adopted by the EU.
Let’s rewind, because this one is a little tricky. A written statement before parliament last week revealed that our Jacqui Smith had recently attended the latest meeting of the G6 and United States Counter-Terrorism Symposium in Bonn. These sound like fun affairs: in the last twelve months Interior Ministers from France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, plus the United States State Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security have got down for informal chats, previously taking in Venice and Schwielowsee (northern Germany, if you must ask).
This latest get-together discussed general aspects of counter-terrorism, diplomatic assurances, the right to self-defence, and remote searches of computer hard drives. Not that you’d have guessed that from the press release.
Our "good news" source for what went on is Agence France Presse (AFP). They attended the press conference immediately after the meeting, and delivered the upbeat conclusion that all present agreed on the primacy of individual liberty in the fight against terrorism. Germany's interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble – we’ll get back to him - emphasised the need to work "in the spirit of the law".
According to French interior minister Michèle Alliot-Marie: "We must respect individual freedoms. Our fellow-citizens are sensitive about them". US homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff added valedictory comment on trans-Atlantic co-operation.
Not a squeak from our own Jacqui, although we do know she was there, as the post-symposium photo shows her sat rather self-consciously on the edge of her seat next to Herr Schäuble.
Its just as well that AFP turned up, since the official view of the Department of Homeland Security was that this was a private meeting – so no comment. The UK Home Office did little better, suggesting only that debate had been held on how the internet was being used as a channel for radicalisation.
So was this just another cosy get together? Not quite.
A much less cuddly, more matter-of-fact version of what was discussed was provided (pdf) by the German Interior Ministry. Note especially point 13, which encourages the idea that it is legitimate for governments to dabble in transnational computer hacking.
The interior ministers note that almost all partner countries have or intend to have in the near future national laws allowing access to computer hard drives and other data storage devices located on their territory. However, the legal framework with respect to transnational searches of such devices is not well-developed. The interior ministers will therefore continue to seek ways to reduce difficulties and speed up the process in future.
Back in 2007 Schäuble blew the gaffe on the purpose of G6 meetings when he hit back at smaller EU states resentful at being excluded. He said: "If we try and tackle too many issues in formal council meetings, not all member states are satisfied with the [degree of] efficiency.
"Informal preparation can improve the efficiency if it is not done in the wrong way," he stated, before going on to put forward a model whereby each of the EU's big six states would "inform" and co-ordinate positions with a "group" of smaller countries.
And what sort of measures would Herr Schauble like to see introduced? Remote searches of computer hard drives. Security services would send emails with Trojan software attached to machines used by suspected terrorists. These would then serve a dual function, sending data from the hacked machine back to police computers, and also acting as key loggers.
Quite what happens if said terrorists had even halfway decent security in place is not clear.
Sadly, the German Federal Court of Justice ruled in February 2007 that there was no basis for "authorised hacking".
Undeterred, Schäuble brought forward proposals to legalise such hacking by the German Police. Reports in January that this same august body had already gone ahead and commissioned the creation of Trojans to hack skype suggests that it doesn’t matter much what the law says on the subject.
Which brings us full circle. The German Interior Minister is determined to bring about legitimised state hacking of PCs. If he can’t do it in his own country, he’ll try to persuade others to lead the way. If that fails, perhaps the EU can be used as a means to efficiently twist the arms of its smaller members.
It is therefore a shame that the Home Secretary could not be a little more open as to what was discussed. For it seems likely that these symposia are far less innocuous than they sound, and the outcome of their deliberations will have far-reaching consequences for us all. ®