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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Scrap the Interception Modernisation Programme? Of course, Minister, but first you really should read this...

Coalition agreement document, page 6, section 10 (bullet 11):
- Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason
I imagine a scene straight out of Yes Minister as the new Home Secretary Theresa May stretched her legs under her new desk at 2 Marsham Street.
"Of course Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg were very right to include this noble statement in their agreement; but you see, Minister, there is very good reason why we need to store all internet and email records..."
But this isn't a gripe at the traditions and balances of power within the Great Offices of State but at the hoards of consultants advising the civil servants who in turn advise the ministers and secretaries of state about what needs to be done to reign-in control over information in the information age.

And at the naivety of the Liberal Democrats for allowing "without good reason" - what must be the most flexible Get out of Jail Free card since PC Simon Harwood probably quite literally kept out of jail by avoiding criminal charges over the death of Ian Tomlinson.

The IMP is nothing more than a fig leaf - an attempt by those in power to be seen to be doing something to stop the bad guys.

It's kind of like having a life jacket under your aeroplane seat at 38,000 feet yet no parachute.  Yes it could be useful, if we make it down to sea level in one piece.   Except having a life jacket under every seat costs relatively little and harms no-one.  May as well have one there as not.

Anyone who believes that storing petabytes of  data is going to make the country safer and have no tangible impact on civil rights is misguided.  Terrorists and serious criminals will change-up their game.  The early casualties are likely to be innocent net users wrongly accused of serious crimes, the ISPs shouldering the huge technology costs, and households paying far more for their broadband.

Oh, and the taxpayers - with an estimated bill likely to exceed the £2bn already slated.

The only possible winners here are the technology consultants and equipment manufacturers.

I'd like to bet money on four outcomes:
1.) A stable of consultants from the big accountancy and IT firms have already made substantial sums advising various government departments, charging fees reportedly topping £3000 per day for senior partners
2.) The same firms and consultants will continue to rake in huge sums
3.) The IMP plans eventually prove to be infeasible, mainly due to (i) a shift towards encryption as standard for oversees websites outside UK jurisdiction and (ii) the huge cost burden about to be placed on ISPs
4.) The public never gets to hear a compellingly "good reason."

The Consultant's Trap

The biggest problem I have with consultants is the inherent conflict of interest.  They're hired to make the will of department heads and senior policy advisers seem feasible.  A bloody-minded old fool convinces him- or herself that something is a good thing, therefore it must happen. 

Only the greenest of naive (albeit honest) consultants would turn up and explain to said bloody-minded old fool that they can't have what they want, and expect to invoice anything more than half a day's fees.

Better take the work whilst you can get it, and start sketching-out the cutting pattern for the Emperor's brand new cloak.

Over the last couple of days I've been too annoyed about this broken promise to write on the IMP - until now.  Expect much more to follow!



  1. Whilst consultants may advise on how to deliver IMP the vision and determination that it is required will not (can not) come from them... If IMP is to proceed it is because GCHQ and the associated bits of government believe it is the right way to achieve what they want. They're far more likely to be influenced by the outcomes of similar programmes elsewhere (such as the US) than the hard-disk salesman from EDS or the programme managers from the usual suspects.

    To the extent that we actually know what IMP is (and we need to assume we don't know all there is to know) I share your scepticism over its value. But rather than the potential waste of money / abuse of civil liberties what I think is more worrying is that *those responsible* for the UK's national security believe this is the best proportionate way to proceed...

    Blaming consultants is the easy get-out... look for the man cutting the cheques.

    Disclosure: I'm a consultant working in the public sector, but am not involved in IMP.

  2. Hi Ben, I don't blame the consultants for making money helping the emperor cut his new clothes.

    But whilst the folly goes on the paymaster remains deluded in the feasibility of his or her plans, and public money is wasted.

    What I'm trying to do is highlight the trap of paid advisers telling their paymasters what they want to hear.

    And in the process maybe the politicians will give some credence to what the experts sitting on external policy advisory bodies like Fipr and campaign groups like the Open Rights Group have to say on a matter the next time "Sir Humphrey" presents a report by a team of consultants.

    I'm sceptical on your assertion on the role of equipment manufacturers. I've seen industry lobby groups at work first hand within the Palace of Westminster. They promote viewpoints and legislation that will indirectly lead to demand for their kit, and spend a lot of cash doing this.

  3. IMP is 100% Big Brother and 0% Big Society

    Simple as that. Doesnt matter who's to blame - Dick Cleggeron should stamp on this for both his parties sakes.

  4. If we were talking about processing child benefit or installing a new database for HMRC I'd agree with you (a bit more), but the security world is a bit different. The view of the possible, its design and construction are much more closely-held internally.

    re: ministers listening to campaign groups... Take a look at this post:


    Although it's not related to this subject the key message is valid - ministers don't spend money, civil servants do and it would be their views the minister sees.

  5. In some ways that is my point. The cloistered world of the security services perhaps adds undue credence to viewpoints presented to ministers.

    Things are now different than they were even 25 years ago - in reality the commercial sector leads the security sector in most technologies, yet I feel there's still a mystique which makes the otherwise impossible seem possible to the politicians.

    Besides, it looks likely that the bulk of the measures will be implemented by ISPs, which means a commercial solution using commercial technology.

    I'd already read that excellent blog post tweeted by @lesteph this morning, and fully agree. I've seen a few sides of the associated problems over my career. I started in military telecoms, moved to civil/government telecoms at Motorola then developed my own budget management control system - now used by commercial partners running government contracts.

    I know the balance of spending power lies with the civil servants, what I'm urging is for the ministers holding the reigns to listen to a wider selection of views as well as the voices coming up the chain in their own department.


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