The government Interception Modernisation Programme (gIMP), a plan by spy chiefs to centrally collect details of every phone call, text, email and web browsing session of every UK resident, could be in place by 2012, according to a Home Office minister.
Lord West told the House of Lords yesterday the government is aiming to have the enormous database of communications and "black box" interception hardware in place around the same time as BT completes its 21CN transition to an all-internet protocol network.
"Exactly how quickly that [BT's new backbone] will come in is difficult to predict, but it will be complete by about 2011-12. That is the sort of timescale we are looking at," he said. Advocates of the system say the completion of 21CN will seriously impinged on the ability of law enforcement to track serious crime.
Last month home secretary Jacqui Smith said the Communications Data Bill, which is planned to legislate for the gIMP, would be delayed a second time and not appear in the Queen's Speech in early December. Instead, she said, a consultation will be opened in January with the aim of achieving consensus on GCHQ's communications data harvesting ambitions.
Independent Register sources in politics, the civil service and industry have all said that the gIMP is proceeding anyway with initial funding of almost £1bn. It's been reported that government estimates say the final cost of collecting and storing information about every electronic communication will be £12bn. Lord West said no decisions have been taken "on which way to go".
The gIMP won't record the content of communications, but the central database will be linked to wiretap hardware. The two parts of the system will together allow government eavesdroppers to easily dial into the content of any IP stream of interest.
At present Smith's "consensus" seems unlikely. The country's top prosecutor used his valedictory speech to caution against growing state power, specifically in reference to the Communications Data Bill.
In the Lords yesterday some questions to Lord West were also hostile. Baroness Miller asked: "With three billion emails - that is 35,000 every second - 18 million internet connections and 57 billion text messages a year, does he [Lord West] think this is really likely to prove the most effective way of fighting terrorism? Does he think that such a step of invading our privacy is a step too far?"
Lord West replied that because communications providers already hold information about who contacts whom, when and how, the gIMP would not represent a major change. "We are not proposing that data that have never been collected are held," he said. "The question is how in the future, with all the changes that are coming we can still have access to something that we regularly use today for serious crime and counterterrorism." The final system will be fully compatible with human rights legislation, he said.
Opponents of the gIMP within government have argued that it will mark a huge concentration of data and that the ability to mine for new information will be an unprecedented power. ®