Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

"Whitehall's control freaks are on a roll"

19 January 1999. Thanks to IB and Anon.

The Times [London], 19 January 1999 [opinion pages]

Sue Cameron

'The Government is running scared over electronic trade - it is using the war on crime as an excuse to snoop on us all through our computers'

Whitehall's control freaks are on a roll. Not only have they managed to consign the long-promised Freedom of Information Bill to the bottom of the pending tray, they are now poised to give themselves powers to go snooping through your computer.

Included in the Electronic Commerce Bill, due to be introduced this spring, are powers ostensibly designed to help the authorities to combat crime. But the Bill will also give the Government powers to eavesdrop on anyone's confidential computer messages, raising important questions about civil liberty, law enforcement and the power of the State.

The issue, with its uncomfortable echoes of the erosion of individual freedoms so vividly depicted in the film Enemy of the State, will be raised when the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee meets today.

The logic of the Bill seems obvious - a quarter of all business deals are expected soon to be done through what is known as e-commerce and the Government wants to create a legal framework in which such trade can flourish.

Specifically, the Bill is meant to boost public confidence in the security of e-commerce. People need to be sure that the information they send over the networks is confidential. This is ensured through encryption, and the Government is planning to offer licences to encryption services - bodies known as Trusted Third Parties, or TTPs. Any organisation wanting a licence will have to satisfy Oftel that it can meet minimum standards of reliability and technical competence.

It is with the TTPs that the concerns begin. They will keep copies of everyone's encryption keys - the devices that enable messages to be decoded - and the Bill will give law enforcement agencies the right to demand access to these keys.