UK comms regulator Ofcom has told people wanting to set up a GSM gateway that it will not be authorising them to do so, pending a planned government appeal against a recent High Court judgment.
Sources have told The Register that Ofcom is pushing back hard against any attempts to apply for a GSM gateway licence. They say this calls into question the regulator's public stance of being independent from government.
Ofcom has published a statement on its website about the case stating that "for the time being, Ofcom will not be taking action to issue any licence exemption regulations under s.8 WTA06."
The move comes after a High Court judgment that ordered Ofcom to do that exact thing: that is, issue licences for people to operate GSM gateways. However, the government has declared its intention to appeal against the ruling and, we are told, has already secured a stay of the High Court's order – preserving the status quo.
GSM gateways are a bit like a VPN for phonecalls. Back in the days when overseas calls were charged at ridiculously high rates, GSM gateways, devices filled with multiple SIM cards, were used to offer cheaper per-minute calls to consumers. They worked by exploiting domestic and foreign mobile operators' special deals on SIM-to-SIM calls (as opposed to SIM-to-landline or vice versa) in order to reduce the cost of the call.
Although those who spoke to El Reg did not want to be named, they said Ofcom had told them that no licences would be issued unless applicants could show that their gateways would meet the government's national security concerns. These, we are told, relate to passing caller line identification (CLI) data through the gateway, which reflects the Home Office's desire to ensure its spies can see who is calling who and make decisions on which lines to tap and eavesdrop upon.
Existing GSM gateway designs do not pass through the caller's ID, making it non-trivial for spies, police and others to carry out surveillance.
The whole GSM gateway matter has embarrassed the Home Office, which we caught anonymously lobbying Ofcom in an attempt to pretend that members of the public shared its obscurely technical objections to the use of GSM gateways, in the hope of giving Ofcom a get-out route to renew the ban after changes in EU law made it unsustainable. Not only that, but the second most powerful civil servant in Britain has also been caught telling Ofcom not to legalise GSM gateways. Sir Philip Rutnam, now the Permanent Secretary of the Home Office, worked for one of Ofcom's predecessors in his junior days and was involved in banning them in the early 2000s.
Ofcom had not responded to The Register's request for comment by the time of publication. ®