Police and intelligence agencies are lobbying hard for means of snooping on internet-based telephony, arguing that they need them to catch criminals, reports Peter Warren
In numerous advertisements, you are encouraged to buy an Internet phone so you can make free calls to friends. Meanwhile, a gaggle of online programs such as Skype boast of the boon of online calls: they're free. But the UK's top law enforcement agencies don't see it the same way.
The Guardian has learned that police and security agencies have been lobbying ministers and senior officials, expressing fears about the potential for voice-over-Internet-protocol technologies to hide a caller's identity. Their aim? To get VoIP providers to monitor calls and find ways to identify who is calling whom - and even record them.
Though enforcement agencies say their main concern is VoIP's inability to deliver a 999 service, sources counter that this is a smokescreen to cover police efforts to monitor calls and identify individuals - an agenda that becomes more credible in the light of submissions made by police to the communications regulator, Ofcom.
One document, sent to Ofcom on May 3 by Detective Superintendent Stuart Macleod, outlined the worries of the Data Communications Group - a police and industry liaison body that reports to the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), Revenue and Customs, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (Soca) "and other law enforcement agencies".
"At present, law enforcement agencies have great difficulty in tracing the origin of VoIP calls," wrote DS Macleod. "This poses significant threats to our democratic society and it is for this reason that the DCG believes that it must be mandatory for VoIP service providers to be required to retain adequate records in respect of calls made using this technology.
"Without these records, VoIP services will become the communication method of choice for criminals and terrorists, secure in the knowledge that their activities are untraceable by law enforcement agencies. If this situation is allowed to emerge because of inadequate regulation, then the DCG believes that ... criticism of government and those responsible for implementing regulatory controls will be huge."
Acpo's submissions to Ofcom did not mince words, either, saying that Ofcom's considerations about the impact of VoIP appeared to have overlooked the issue of "how law enforcement and the security services will be able to respond to the demands and expectations of the public and government to trace and identify those who seek to harm our citizens, and who may seek to use VoIP services to propagate their activities by hiding behind a cloak of virtual anonymity".
DS Macleod says the DCG has "grave concerns" about the approach to regulating VoIP services and that these have been "largely ignored".
Ofcom's response: "Some of the issues raised are to do with privacy, and that is not within our ambit. Any application of the law in relation to peoples' records should be addressed to the Information Commissioner. Ofcom is not able to propose, recommend or make decisions on personal records." The Information Commissioner's office said that because the directive is still with the government - specifically, the Home Office - it had no comment.
Since the emergence of the Internet, the police and the government have wrestled with a technology that has eluded their best efforts to control it. Internet telephony has continued that trend.
Under the exchange-based telephony system, the location of a phone is pinned to a geographical address and a record that a phone call had taken place is stored centrally. But with the Internet that is no longer the case.
The problem with VoIP, from a law enforcement perspective, is that it does not travel through an exchange. There is no simple way to catch the packets travelling over the Internet, or even to link the 12-digit Internet "IP addresses" between which a call travels online to any two people. Wireless routers can generate a one-time IP address that can be pinpointed to that wireless router, but - as in the case of a wireless hotspot - that will show only that the call was made from that router.
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