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[FYI] UK: FT on RIP bill


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Editorial comment: Spies in the web

6 Mar 2000 20:24GMT  

Big Brother only had television cameras to spy into our living rooms. 
Today's governments have computers, with power far beyond anything 
imagined by George Orwell in his chilling novel 1984.  

But to make best use of their surveillance of internet data, they 
need to have the keys to the encryption systems now routinely used to 
defend privacy. Yesterday Jack Straw introduced a bill in Britain's 
House of (Commons that would give the authorities more intrusive 
powers than in any other western democracy.  

The home secretary claimed the new powers would be used mainly to 
track down serious criminals. Maybe. But as now drafted the 
legislation would enable the authorities to collect huge amounts of 
data on ordinary citizens. It could load costs on industry and 
frustrate the use of the internet for commercial applications that 
require secure communications.  

Among the most objectionable parts of this bill are those which 
require internet service providers (ISPs) to become party to secret 
surveillance of their customers. This is a large extension of the 
present system that allows the home secretary to order telephone 
companies to tap individual phone lines.  

ISPs would be required to invest in new equipment specifically to 
siphon off internet traffic into government computers. They would 
also be required to provide the authorities with detailed traffic 
analysis. This could include every e-mail address and internet site 
to which an individual had connected, possibly including any 

Such surveillance may be targeted on named individuals. But the home 
secretary would have the authority to call in great swathes of more 
general data for police investigation.  

These provisions, together with a presumption of guilt if anyone 
failed to give up an encryption key when legitimately asked, 
potentially give the authorities enormous additional powers. Clearly 
the police need the ability to tap phones in serious cases. And the 
convergence of telephony and the internet makes it inevitable that 
the authority will be extended to data communications. But the law 
needs to be more tightly drawn, particularly in regard to encryption. 

Serious crooks will find other ways of keeping their secrets. But 
internet commerce will only flourish if all parties are confident of 
security. The idea that internet providers should fill police 
computers with credit card details, bank statements and commercial 
contracts may be far from Mr Straw's intention. But this bill makes 
it possible. He must think again.  

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