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UK police and security services 'haven't got a clue' how the internet works

By Ellen Branagh | Wednesday, November 26th 2014

A lack of understanding, rather than uncooperative service providers, is hampering police and security services’ efforts to get details on internet users, the chair of the body representing the UK internet industry has said.

James Blessing, chair of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), said many investigators “haven’t got a clue” about how networks are built, making it difficult for them to request the right information from providers.

His comments come in the wake of Home Secretary Theresa May’s announcement of plans to force firms to retain Internet Protocol (IP) address data, or IP-matching, as part of a new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.

The measures are said to build on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014, passed earlier this year, which extended legislation relating to the retention of communications data.

But Mr Blessing told Cable.co.uk that problems are often caused by a lack of understanding by those carrying out the investigations, rather than an unwillingness by service providers to hand over information.

He said current laws allow police and security services to access the information they need, providing they submit their requests in the right way.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) may be “flawed” in some ways, he said, “giving powers and abilities and access to all the wrong sort of people who think it’s a great idea but don’t understand what they’re doing with it.

“But for people like the police and security services it has everything in there they need to actually access the information they need,” he added.

“So when people turn round and say, ‘well we can’t get this information’, you go, ‘but you didn’t ask’.

“We don’t have this piece of information but we’ve got all this round the outside of it that will probably actually get you to that piece of information if you’d asked for all these little bits.”

Providers often receive all sorts of requests from investigators, he said, but when they clarify details with people with more technical know-how, can often find the necessary information in minutes.

Other problems include incorrectly-written IP addresses, or addresses corresponding to devices that could not possibly do what investigators suggest they have, such as printers or routers, he said.

“And that’s because the people doing the searching stuff need more training, need more skills,” Mr Blessing said.

“It’s one of those things that you have a good chunk who do get it, a good chunk who sort of get it, and a small minority who still haven’t quite got there. And it’s like, ‘come on guys’.

“The technical guys, the guys on the ground who actually do all the forensic work, who actually know how a network is built, yes they know it. But the guys at the front desk haven’t got a clue.

“It’s probably like putting someone on a swivel chair, giving them a shotgun, and saying, ‘okay, just hit that target over there. Twice. In a row.’

“At that point they start spinning round and they go, ‘oh I’ll just keep on firing’. You do get that, you can spot when someone is firing lots of scattergun to try and catch a certain thing. And it happens a lot.”

Mr Blessing said providers are willing to hand over details, providing the request is clear and backed up by the right paperwork.

He said that the current system works, and although there are “edge cases” where it does not, authorities should focus on the 99% that does.

He added: “What we want to hand over is the right material, to the right person, for the right reason.

ISPA, which previously said the government had amended laws on data storage without “meaningful scrutiny”, criticised the Home Office for a lack of industry engagement on IP-matching.

In a speech yesterday to the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), the Home Secretary said the powers to retain IP address data will be limited and do not mandate the retention of and access to ”data that would in all cases identify a suspect who has, for example, been accessing servers hosting illegal content”.

She said: “The powers in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill are essential to keep up with the very serious and rapidly changing threats we face.

“But it is also right that we make sure there is proper oversight and scrutiny of those who use the sensitive powers granted by counter-terrorism legislation.”

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