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U.K. plan to open Internet spy center draws criticism

May 1, 2000
Web posted at: 4:55 p.m. EDT (2055 GMT)

(CNN) -- The United Kingdom Home Office is responding to the concerns of civil liberties groups over a government plan to open a facility designed to intercept and monitor Internet traffic, including e-mail and encrypted messages.

A report in the Sunday Times of London said the 25 million pound center will have the power to tap incoming and outgoing Internet traffic from Britain and that major Internet service providers are providing hardwire links to the surveillance station.

The Times reported that the center, known as the Government Assistance Technical Center, would be run by MI5, the United Kingdom's internal security service. A Home Office spokesman contacted by denied this, saying it would be run by the National Criminal Intelligence Service, another agency controlled by the Home Office.

Civil liberties groups objected to the plan, which was brought about by a Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit report and endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"With this facility, the government can track every Web site that a person visits, without a warrant, giving rise to a culture of suspicion by association," Caspar Bowden of the Foundation for Information Policy Research told the Times.

Speaking to, spokesman Peter Hillman of the Home Office denied that the intelligence service could monitor Internet messages without cause, citing the need for a specific warrant before a tap could be made.

"There will be no mass snooping; interception now and in the future may only be performed under a warrant authorized personally by the Secretary of State and in every case the full range of safeguards applies, with recourse to independent oversight. The use of interception will be strictly targeted on criminal activities," Hillman said.

The center is governed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill, introduced into Britain's lower house in February. According to the British parliament Web site, the bill is still in committee.

A Liberal Democrat member of parliament has also spoken out against the center.

"The arrival of this spy center means that Big Brother is finally here," said Norman Baker to the Times. "The balance between the state and individual privacy has swung too far in favor of the state."

The cost of the center is a point of contention, too. The Times reports that it will cost Britain's 400 Internet providers 30 million pounds during the first year. The beleaguered companies are objecting to the price.

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