US ATTACK: U.K. asks ISPs, telcos to retain data

Shortly after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. last Tuesday, the U.K. government sent out a request to all U.K.-based ISPs (Internet service providers) and telecommunication companies to retain all communications-traffic data for the next month, a spokeswoman for the U.K. National High-Tech Crime Unit confirmed.

"The request went out under the Data Protection Act last Tuesday, basically as a way to preserve data. That is all we asked for at the moment, just in case the data needs to be looked at by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as part of their investigations. It is similar to preserving evidence in a crime scene," said Judy Prue, spokeswoman for the National High-Tech Crime Unit on Monday.

The FBI has issued a similar request under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to U.S.-based ISPs. Last week, Dulles, Virginia-based America Online Inc. and Atlanta-based EarthLink Inc. both acknowledged that they are cooperating with the FBI in the search for specific data that could possibly help identify those involved with the attacks.

British Telecommunications PLC (BT) acknowledged on Monday that it too is complying with the request by the U.K. government but declined to give any details. "All we could say publicly is that we will certainly comply with anything that the government would ask of us," a BT spokeswoman said.

The Data Protection Act usually keeps these same companies from saving traffic data for longer than a month and for any reason other than billing purposes. While the actual content of the data has not been requested, the government has asked for such information as IP (Internet protocol) addresses, individual telephone numbers dialed and how long those calls lasted, Prue said.

While the information requested under the Data Protection Act -- a request which is not legally binding -- seeks to track the path and locations of data traffic, a newly-introduced U.K. law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), could be enacted to look more deeply into the content of communications-traffic data.

RIPA, which was passed last year and is in the process of being implemented, requires ISPs in the U.K. to track all data traffic passing through their computers and route it to the Government Technical Assistance Centre (GTAC). The GTAC has been established in the London headquarters of the U.K. security service, MI5 -- the U.K. equivalent of the FBI.

Under the provisions of the RIPA, the U.K. government -- specifically the Home Office and its head, the Home Secretary (a post currently held by David Blunkett) -- can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications, with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order.

Furthermore, if a company official is asked to surrender an encryption key to the government, that individual is barred by law from telling anyone -- including their employer, be it senior management or security staff -- that they have done so. Guidelines for this "tipping-off" offense, as it is known, could leave an international company completely unaware that what it assumes is secure company data may be under investigation by MI5. Those violating the tipping-off offense can face up to five years in prison.

Officials at MI5 and the Home Office both declined to discuss any specifics of ongoing investigations, though the National High-Tech Crime Unit's spokeswoman kept the door open to the future possibility that RIPA may be used to look more deeply at saved data traffic.

"RIPA may come in (to the official investigation) at a future time, but at the moment our request is limited to the Data Protection Act. If information under RIPA is requested by the U.S., we will want to proceed within the proper legal channels," Prue said.

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