A confused and technically illiterate account of Jacqui Smith's government Interception Modernisation Programme (gIMP) by The Independent crosses our desk this morning.
The perma-struggling* paper said it "has learnt" (journalist-speak for "I spoke to someone on the phone") that "internet 'black boxes' will be used to collect every email and web visit in the UK under the government's plans for a giant 'big brother' database".
The story is inaccurately referring to the GCHQ-backed plans for a centralised database of communications data, which we've been reporting on for several months. In fact, The Independent could have "learnt" that black box wiretaps will form part of the proposed system if it had read this story from October 7.
If it had then read this story from October 16 it might not have made the false claim that the black boxes are planned to collect every email and web visit. As we explained, gIMP has two interdependent parts. A centralised database of communications data (who contacted whom, when and how) will be built. That will allow GCHQ to target persons of interest for wiretapping via the black boxes.
The Independent's story is sourced from Monday's conference of ISPA, the internet providers association. A Home Office official appeared on a panel at the annual event alongside Cambridge academic Richard Clayton to discuss the Communications Data Bill, which will enter consultation in January and is planned to offer vague legislative cover for gIMP (but as we reported in summer, procurement talks have already begun).
The media is not welcome at the ISPA conference precisely so such discussions can take place, under Chatham House rules. Our sources told us however that the Home Office revealed no new information about gIMP.
The report in The Independent cites a source "close to the meeting" (was he stood outside?) as saying: "It was clear the 'back box' [sic] is the technology the government will use to hold all the data. But what isn't clear is what the Home Secretary, GCHQ and the security services intend to do with all this information in the future."
We're at risk of labouring our point here, but the black boxes don't and won't "hold" data. They would act as IP wiretaps just as the current black boxes in BT's PTSN network are voice wiretaps.
Installation of black boxes throughout the UK's mobile and fixed communications networks is likely to be the biggest single cost in gIMP's mooted £12bn budget, but not the most technically difficult. One of the largest obstacles to gIMP will be parsing the communications data required in the centralised database to make the wiretaps useful.
ISP sources have described spymasters' plan to standardise data from their various backend systems in real time as "science fiction". ®
*It was reported this weekend that the Daily Mail and General Trust might buy the unprofitable Independent for £1. Both parties denied the story on Monday. Regular readers might recognise the Observer journalist responsible for the story from his sterling work a week earlier falsely linking the civil liberties lobby Liberty with an endorsement of mobile phone operators' data protection policies.
But that's just by the by.