Government backtracks on Internet surveillance

Government offers to weaken cyber-snooping bill, but some say the changes are only superficial

The government tabled amendments to a controversial cyber-surveillance bill Monday that would weaken its snooping powers but may prevent more serious changes from being made.

Home Office minister Charles Clark yesterday promised that the suggested amendments to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill would reduce the burden on companies to hand over encryption keys. He also said that amendments would clarify the cost of the bill to ISPs and to the business community.

As it stands, the bill would give law enforcers the right to access Internet traffic and communications and imprison those who do not hand over encryption keys.

The amendments are aimed at helping the Bill through the House of Lords where it has received rough treatment.

Some opposed to the bill, however, say that while this may be a step in the right direction, RIP needs more fundamental changes. "There has been some progress but there is still a lot of information outstanding," says Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research. Bowden says the devil is in the detail and thinks the power the bill gives law enforcers to demand long-term encryption keys from companies is still there.

"It's basically a bit of a blood bath and I'm still trying to work out what the effects are," he says.

Others are nevertheless encouraged that the government is listening to there concerns. In an open letter to be published today, Chris Humphries, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, which commissioned a report criticising the business costs of RIP, welcomes the amendments.

"The amendments that the Home Office has put forward for debate in Lords committee stage will, if accepted, go a long way towards meeting the concerns of industry with regard to the RIP bill. These amendments deal with a number of key concerns that the BCC has raised," he says.

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They can see you... Read about how and why in Surveillance, a ZDNet News Special.

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