Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Whither the Interception Modernisation Programme?

For the past couple of days, journalists have been trying to decipher the signals that have emerged from the Home Office about the fate of its proposals to “protect the public in a changing communications environment”.

Earlier on in the year the story appeared to be that some outfit called the “Interception Modernisation Programme” had been created to devise ever more ingenious ways of requiring the retention of records relating to phone, text, email and internet communications. This was to ensure that the law enforcement community could continue their vital role in preventing and detecting crime. In April, when the Home Office’s much awaited consultation paper was published, the big story was that whatever was going to happen, it would not include a gigantic central database, where all these records would be carefully stored. “The Register” was the runnaway winner in the “name-that-database” competition: “Wacky Jacquie’s Uberdatabase” was born” – in honour of the then Home Secretary Jacquie Smith.

The trouble was that the consultation paper didn’t give much else away as to any options that remained on the table. Comments were invited on any ideas as to what to do in place of the central database. Where was “Plan B”?

A couple of days ago, the Home Office published its summary of responses to the consultation paper – amid so much confusion that some commentators reported that all of the proposals had been shelved, while others warned that the plans were merely to be delayed. Shami Chakrabarti of “Liberty” called for “A bold alliance of phone companies who fear losing public trust and concerned citizens to come together in opposition to these plans”. (London Metro, 10 November)

The last person to lead the alliance against "Wacky Jacquie’s Uberdatabase" was Richard Thomas, the then Information Commissioner. Richard has done more to raise awareness about the significance of protecting personal information, and at the same time to focus public attention on the need to publish information our public officials would like hidden away, than all of his predecessors put together. Funnily enough, and despite victories that parliamentarians will rue for decades, he wasn't knighted when his term of office ended. Surely some mistake?

So what’s the truth about the IMP? And how should I know? Have those awfully clever members of the Interception Modernisation Programme really been told to pack up their pencils and head back to their other jobs? In the words of the disciples who implored their brave leader in the musical (and film) Jesus Christ Superstar, “What’s the buzz – tell me what’s a happening....”

Well, as Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA, "They've not gone away you know."

And how do I know? Yesterday, I accompanied a well dressed (and frightfully well mannered) bunch of telecoms oiks to a Central London location to learn from the authors of the consultation document just what they thought the Government meant when it published its summary of responses. These Home Office officials were (almost certainly) the same bunch that wrote the original consultation document, so I’m confident they know what they are talking about.

The telecoms oiks who accompanied me to this meeting comprise what can only be described as a very junior telecoms equivalent to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. They are a bunch of experts from various providers, all of whom give freely of their time to give honest advice on what is technically feasible on their networks. They are all trusted individuals who are sworn to secrecy. But,they have in the past found it really hard to remember what the IMP has told them in confidence, and therefore must not be shared with anyone who doesn’t know the golden password, and what the IMP has told everyone else in public, and therefore can be discussed in polite company.

Unlike some members of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, these telecoms oiks continue to attend meetings convened by the IMP even if they appear to disagree with Government policy. A few have left the group over the years – but that’s because they’ve been made redundant from their respective companies. I’m certain that such redundancies have had nothing to do with their differences of views on the issues the IMP has ever wanted to discuss.

I won’t give away the location of the last meeting in case that’s protected by the golden password. Suffice to say, it’s in Westminster. You have to enter a building up one small flight of stairs, and nod to a doorkeeper to your left, whispering “IMP” just loud enough for him to hear. You then get pointed to an unmarked door under the stairs, which you enter, turn sharp right and are faced with a locked door which has a window. If the next doorkeeper likes the look of you, you are let in and relieved of your electronic equipment. Your credentials are checked, then you are issued with a coloured pass, and you then wait for a grown up with a differently coloured pass to carefully escort you out the door you had just entered, across the corridor, through another locked door and down the special staircase to the special conference rooms below. You are then warmly greeted by people who you’ve met before (and on lots of occasions) but who seem to have arrived at these special conference rooms via another route. To get out, you need to leave a few minutes earlier than you would do in any other type of office building. But that’s another story.

So, what’s the buzz?

The view from the “Provisional” wing of the IMP is that “Doing nothing in the face of challenges from rapidly changing technology was not an option”. (See page 23 of the Summary of Responses)

The view from the “Real” wing of the IMP is that “The Government will continue to develop the approach it proposed in the consultation document with a view to bringing forward the necessary legislation”. And, “The Government will also continue to work closely with communications service providers to ensure that any additional requirements will be feasible and reasonable, and to minimise, as far as possible, any impact on the industry”. (See page 16 of the Summary of Responses)

So, its clear. Something will be done. Dunno what, though.

And nor do they.

Watch this space.

So let’s see who joins Shami and her colleagues in forming “A bold alliance of phone companies who fear losing public trust and concerned citizens to come together in opposition to these plans”.

And in our spare time, please we can all search for Richard's lost knighthood.