Questions over the government's plans to spend £12bn on a scheme to modernise the security forces' ability to listen to phone calls were raised in a BBC television programme last night.
The BBC2 programme, Who's watching you?, reported former spies as well as SAS soldier-turned-novelist Andy McNab warning that the really dangerous people no longer used internet, mobile phones or telephones to communicate. McNab said they exchange information in face-to-face meetings and whisper in their ear.
David Pepper, former head of GCHQ, the government's electronic surveillance agency, told the programme that GCHQ would lose its ability to tap telephone calls when the core communications network, BT's telephone system, switches to using Internet Protocol to send and receive calls.
This was because the sounds were broken into packets and routed around the network in a more or less random way before being reassembled at the message's destination. While in transit, they are mixed with other content, such as e-mails, video and music in a single bit stream of signals. This made complete messages hard to track across the net, he said.
The Home Office recently bowed to pressure to consult on the proposed Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP), which some regard as the start of a state-run "Big Brother" surveillance system. The consultation closes on 20 July.
However, communications service providers such as BT, Virgin Media and the mobile network operators are already required to record and keep address and destination details of calls, as well time and location, for 12 months to comply with European legislation.
Read more on IT legislation and regulation
GCHQ bulk interception programme breached privacy rights, Strasbourg court rules
Liberty heads for judicial review over Investigatory Powers Act
GCHQ mass surveillance regime was in breach of human rights law, European court rules
UK spies face landmark challenge over mass surveillance in human rights court