Home Office officials will today meet industry respresentatives to discuss delays to a consultation on plans to massively expand government surveillance of the internet, sources say.
Jacqui Smith announced in October she would seek views on the controversial Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP). The consultation paper was originally scheduled for publication in January this year, but the Home Office has since switched its line to a more vague "early 2009" date.
Today a spokesman refused to provide a precise date. He said: "We hope to begin that process, on an important and complex issue, shortly."
The delay has fuelled speculation among insiders that the government does not have the political stomach for another battle over privacy. Jack Straw recently made an embarrassing U-turn on data sharing proposals in the Coroners and Justice Bill.
"We're starting to wonder whether [IMP] is being kicked into the long grass," one industry figure said.
ISPA, the trade association that represents internet providers, said it was waiting for information from the Home Office. "We do plan to organise a meeting with the IMP team to give ISPA members the opportunity to discuss the forthcoming consultation. There is no date for this meeting at present as it is not clear when the consultation document will be published," a spokesman said.
As proposed by GCHQ and MI6, IMP would collect all the traffic data retained by ISPs, telcos and mobile operators in a central database. In addition, intelligence chiefs would seek to monitor use of VoIP, chat rooms and other communications. ISPs do not collect traffic data for such internet applications, so a network of deep packet inspection devices would be used to capture it in transit.
It's been reported that a ubiquitous system has been costed at £12bn, although the figure is thought to be speculative. The project is led by former Vodafone executive Tim Hayward, and has already been allocated £1bn for development. Multiple sources say Vodafone and BT's networks have been lined up as test beds for the system.
The government argues IMP will allow law enforcement and intelligence agencies to "maintain capability" to access communications data - a capability it says is being eroded by the internet.
The content of communications will not be monitored, Smith said in October, but security experts including the University of Cambridge's Richard Clayton have argued the line between traffic data and content is blurred for many internet applications, such as email.
If delays to the consultation indeed indicate ministerial fears of a political backlash, few close to the project expect it to be abandoned by its intelligence agency progenitors. They have pressed for IMP, or some variant of it, for more than eight years. ®