Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP)

What is it?

An attempt, initiated by our previous Labour government, to track our email, internet and phone usage. It has been painted as a way of bringing surveillance up to date, although that seems very much to underestimate the sinister potential of a scheme that allows The Government to spy on all your phone and internet activities.

What’s the history?

It was originally announced back in 2008, and it is debatable whether it was ever technically feasible. Initially, the then-Government favoured a scheme to insert large numbers of probes into the country’s telephone and email networks. Subsequently, they wanted to compel internet providers to store and maintain records. With opposition mounting, and as it became apparent that the technicalities of the task were far beyond the original estimations of ministers, IMP quietly disappeared from view prior to the May 2010 general election.

Despite a promise to ‘end the storage of email and internet records without good reason’, news broke in October that the Coalition is planning to revive the Interception Modernisation Programme. Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom, in a speech to the Institute for Government in November 2010, claimed that IMP “merely[!] restores in a digital age the ability Government has always had to read the addresses of people’s envelopes and to record which numbers they dial.”

What are the aims?

You may read this a lot in this section: the stated intention is to keep us all safe. By means of digital surveillance, we are supposedly protected from those who would use the medium to do us ill. In reality, of course, the Government can use IMP to build a colossal database of the internet and email movements of every person in the country.

How this database will actually be used is a moot point. Reassurances that only the digital ‘envelope’ will be easily visible, and that access to the contents will require a warrant, look pretty hollow given that this clause could be easily changed once the IMP is signed into law.

What’s the current situation?

The Coalition is yet to explain how it will overcome either the technical limitations or the civil liberties concerns surrounding IMP. Details of its resurrection circulated in October 2010, and became only a little clearer in November, so it’s still too early to tell exactly what the Coalition is now proposing. 2011 could be a defining year for the IMP.

What problems does it cause me?

If you use the internet, send emails, or make phone calls, your privacy is at risk. Unless you trust the Government to take immaculate care of your data, to store it securely, and never to use it for anything other than the purposes they state, you may well wonder what they need so much information for, and what they might do with it.

What does the future hold?

2011 looks likely to be a big year for IMP – and IMP looks likely to be a big yardstick for the Coalition’s commitment to civil liberties. If they press ahead with it, as they appear to be doing, they will make their post-election promises look very hollow indeed. They also risk alienating everyone from civil liberties campaigners to Internet Service Providers.

Resources

IMP Wikipedia article

Text of Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom’s speech to the Institute for Government