New Zealand ISPs are ready for e-mail tapping

Most New Zealand ISPs (Internet service providers) are technically ready to tap users’ e-mail should government agencies demand it, says Cisco Systems Inc. engineer Arron Scott.

“Most of these technologies are used for diagnostic purposes to make sure the traffic is flowing properly and is what it’s supposed to be. There’s very little use of it for content analysis, but it’s really a simple matter to do that,” says Scott.

He has not seen the legislation currently in select committee which would allow security services the right to access e-mail with a warrant. From the hardware point of view, however, it shouldn’t be difficult, he says.

“Some ISPs would have to ensure their network would allow this kind of analysis. Most mail clients are based on POP (Post Office protocol) which downloads the e-mail to the client and then deletes it from the server.”

Scott says to intercept the e-mail, the ISP would have to modify the mail server to save that data. Whether ISPs would be willing to bear the cost is another matter.

“We’re willing to be citizens if you like and stand up and play our part but I don’t think we should have to pay to do it,” says 2Day founder Peter Mott. Hamilton-based ISP The Wave’s general manager, Wayne Attwell, agrees, saying he supports legislation that would enable police to intercept e-mail on the same footing as tapping voice calls but that he would not be happy to pay for it to be done.

Currently if the police or security services want to access a voice call they contact Telecom New Zealand with a warrant and Telecom bills them on a cost recovery basis only.

“(The police) are often after call records that may be of some age which require some de-archiving and trawling through the call records and the like,” says Telecom spokesman Glen Sowry. “When that occurs it’s a very labor-intensive activity.”

He says the charging is common practice internationally.

“Most carriers charge the police in exactly the same way, including those in the United States, Britain and Australia.”

Vodafone New Zealand’s network poses some difficulties for the police. The GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) network is encrypted and a Vodafone spokeswoman, Alison Sykora, says Vodafone does not have equipment in the country to be able to intercept a call.

“We can offer phone logs to say calls were made, and even tell them what cell the call came from, but we can’t listen in at all.”

Sykora says Vodafone would comply with any government regulations in any country it operates, and will be discussing the situation with government once the legislation is made public.

Xtra marketing manager Chris Thompson says it’s not uncommon for police to approach an ISP with a warrant.

“We might get one or two a month. They’re always very serious investigations; things like paedophilia or the like.”