The Sunday Times, 30.04.2000
MI5 builds new centre to read e-mails on the net
(Nicholas Rufford )
MI5 is building a new £25m e-mail surveillance centre that will
have the power to monitor all e-mails and internet messages sent
and received in Britain. The government is to require internet
service providers, such as Freeserve and AOL, to have "hardwire"
links to the new computer facility so that messages can be traced
across the internet.
The security service and the police will still need Home Office
permission to search for e-mails and internet traffic, but they can
apply for general warrants that would enable them to intercept
communications for a company or an organisation.
The new computer centre, codenamed GTAC - government
technical assistance centre - which will be up and running by the
end of the year inside MI5's London headquarters, has provoked
concern among civil liberties groups. "With this facility, the
government can track every website that a person visits, without a
warrant, giving rise to a culture of suspicion by association," said
Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy
The government already has powers to tap phone lines linking
computers, but the growth of the internet has made it impossible
to read all material. By requiring service providers to install cables
that will download material to MI5, the government will have the
technical capability to read everything that passes over the internet.
Home Office officials say the centre is needed to tackle the use of
the internet and mobile phone networks by terrorists and
international crime gangs.Charles Clark, the minister in charge of
the spy centre project, said it would allow police to keep pace with
"Hardly anyone was using the internet or mobile phones 15 years
ago," a Home Office source said. "Now criminals can
communicate with each other by a huge array of devices and
channels and can encrypt their messages, putting them b
There has been an explosion in the use of the internet for crime in
Britain and across the world, leading to fears in western
intelligence agencies that they will soon be left behind as
criminals abandon the telephone and resort to encrypted e-mails
to run drug rings and illegal prostitution and immigration rackets.
The new spy centre will decode messages that have been
encrypted. Under new powers due to come into force this summer,
police will be able to require individuals and companies to hand
over computer "keys", special codes that unlock scrambled
There is controversy over how the costs of intercepting internet
traffic should be shared between government and industry.
Experts estimate that the cost to Britain's 400 service providers will
be £30m in the first year. Internet companies say that this is too
expensive, especially as many are making losses.
About 15m people in Britain have internet access. Legal experts
have warned that many are unguarded in the messages they send
or the material they download, believing that they are safe from
"The arrival of this spy centre means that Big Brother is finally
here," said Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes. "The
balance between the state and individual privacy has swung too
far in favour of the state."
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