Tuesday, 20 May 2008

UK Email and Phone Database

The BBC reported today that the UK government is planning a tracking database for all phone calls made and emails sent in the UK.

This strikes me as an unbelievably stupid plan. In the first place, every UK citizen will be baulking at this incredible intrusion into civil liberties. Second, it is highly unlikely that the government could ever deliver such a database based on their previous track record with developing and deploying large scale IT projects - think of the UK tax system and new NHS IT system (which will apparently be 4 years behind schedule). Will this database contain all the content of the calls or just a list of who called/emailed who?

Assuming the former, let's do some "back of the fag packet" calculations...

According to the Mobile Operators Association, there were 70 million mobile subscribers at the end of 2006, with an average 100 minutes per user per month and 12 text messages per week. That's 84,000,000,000 minutes and 43,680,000,000 text messages in a 12 month period, the timescale the database is expected to hold data for.

Using the following forum posting referring to Skype, a conservative estimate of bandwidth is 30kb/s or about 225KB per minute. A text message is a maximum of 160 characters. This means the government database would need a 12 month capacity of only 6.36TB to store the text messages (assuming no database or filesystem overhead) but a whopping 17.6PB of storage to hold the voice calls. Let's assume those calls are made consistently over the course of a year, then the system would need to ingest about 600MB/s of data.

Now, I would imagine even the UK government wouldn't be stupid enough to attempt to store the content of all those calls (I didn't even attempt to calculate the email traffic). If they don't, let's face it, you have to question what the point is, if the content isn't being recorded as anyone with any nefarious intent will simply use anonymous pay-as-you-go SIM cards and bypass all the tracking. Still, at an efficiency of say, 40%, the 44PB potentially needed could set up the lucky EMC or HDS salesperson for life! I wonder if any of them have done the same calculation as me....?


BobBeela said...

I don't think they will store the actual phonecall and message but only the from whom to who and for how long.

Ben Wright said...

As more executives use cell & mobile phone text messages to conduct business, their companies should consider retaining the text records. The records may be needed for legal purposes. --Ben http://hack-igations.blogspot.com/2007/11/instant-message-retention-e-discovery.html

Stephen said...

Yep, I agree with Bob on that. They are not interested in the content more often than not but they are interested in links. Building the big picture is like that 6 degrees of seperation saying. I am only 3 away from the worlds most wanted man. I met someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows Osama. If we have a beer one day Chris, you will be on that list too.. I will be in the UK in August..


Chris M Evans said...

Hmm, Stephen, Bob, I don't see the benefit. If I want to be devious, I could walk into a UK shop and buy any number of unregistered and therefore untraceable SIM cards. If I don't know the content of calls, then who called who is useless without knowing who owns or is using each SIM. Surely this defeats the reason for tracking this data in one simple step?

Stephen said...


I wont go into details on why I said what I said but lets say people may not consider what they do all the time and more often than not don't have lots of money. Also, constantly changing numbers is likely to defeat the purpose. I had the opportunity of setting up a large 3G Telco once and found it all very interesting. I got to deal with all sorts of official people and learned some interesting things.

Besides, the government is only doing what it does to protect you .. right?