Science Questions

Is it possible to look at all emails going in and out of a country?

Sun, 2nd Sep 2012

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Question

Madeleine Fitzgerald, Second Life asked:

Is it possible to look at all emails going in and out of a country?

Answer

Ross -   Well, yes.  There's a communications data bill currently before parliament which would give the home secretary the power to order all communication service providers, so not just firms like BT and Talk Talk, but people like Google and Facebook as well, to install surveillance equipment that would harvest data of interest to the government.  And the equipment, once it’s in, could be used to harvest, for example, all emails coming into or out of the UK or going from one place in the UK to another.

Chris -   Would that be the entire email and all the data connected there too, or would it just be the footprint, I sent you a message at whatever time or whatever day.

Ross -   The communications data bill gives the secretary of state the power to install surveillance equipment to get the footprint, as you call it the traffic data, who sent data to whom and when.  However, once the equipment is installed and other parts such as the Intersection of Communications Acts and the Regulation Investigatory Powers Act, would enable GCHQ to use this for surveillance for content. 

So what we’re talking about is spending perhaps a couple of billion pounds and putting in enough black boxes into the country’s communication service providers, that the police and intelligence agencies could record everything.  And this would be a huge change because at present, there’s only the capability to wiretap about 100,000 internet connections at any one time.  And if you increase that to 20 million internet connections, then we go from a country where the government can watch anybody into a country where the government can watch everybody.

Chris -   All the time.

Ross -   And what's more, to record it and what they want to do is to keep the data for at least 6 months.  Perhaps, some have said for 5 years, so that if you ever do a bad thing, they can go back and see all the people that you were talking to last year.

Chris -   Does this worry you, Steven?

Steven -   Yes, I think it’s quite concerning and particularly because the computer systems that are being used from answering are no more secure than other computer systems, and it could be that criminals will break into these and monitor people even without permission of the police.  And this happened in Greece.  Some criminals – we don’t know who they were – broke into the Greece telephone exchange and were wiretapping the Prime Minister, and was doing so for a year before they discovered that the interception equipment have been tampered with.

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