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Intercepts are Easy

'Surely, all this business about intercepting e-mail is a load of nonsense.'

Not necessarily so. In January 2001, a case was disclosed. A circle of friends of an internet user, an MI6 rebel, began to receive additional copies of e-mails along the lines of ‘message undeliverable’ when they received e-mail from a friend with an account in Italy. The messages were being bounced from the e-mail account of an MI6 officer in London, who had seemed to have gone on holiday, asking his e-mail system to return his e-mail.

It seems to have turned out as follows. The friend had been using an ISP in Italy for his e-mail. For whatever reason, he had apparently come to the notice, as they say, of MI6. A request to the Italian ISP had been made on behalf of MI6 by the equivalent Italian service. The ISP had acceded, and by the simplest of programming tasks, arranged to cc all mail to and from the account to the MI6 officer.

This will not be confirmed, of course, and we must respect the fact that many parts of the explanation are interpretation and guesswork. Nevertheless, there are three simple points which emerge, and which seem incontravertible.

First, it really is that simple to arrange interception of an e-mail account. The software used by an ISP will typically require a one minute bit of typing to achieve this. It would be just as easy to forward and copy mail which in fact passed through an ISPs server, even if the eventual addressee is not actually a customer. Any ISP, or manager of any other system through which e-mail passes can do the same. It is not necessary to subvert the company – any compliant employee with appropriate access will do. In practice it will never be noticed by the company.

Second, it seems clear that the corresondence was in fact being copied in this way. For whatever reason, the Italian ISP had chosen to agree to this.

Third, just as law enforcement often complain that they have difficulty enforcing regulation of the Internet across national frontiers, they similarly appear happy to take advantage of te same diffculties to do just the same themselves.

Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
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18 October 2013 411 18 October 2013