Police want power to seize encryption keys

Police want power to seize encryption keys

Summary: Hundreds of computers belonging to suspected terrorists or paedophiles are gathering dust as investigators are unable to decrypt the data on their hard drives, claim police

TOPICS: Security

The fact that law-enforcement officers don't have the powers to seize encryption keys means an increasing number of criminals are able to evade justice, a senior police officer warned on Monday.

Detective chief inspector Matt Sarti told a public meeting in London that suspected terrorists, paedophiles and burglars have all walked free because encrypted data couldn't be opened and the resulting information brought before the courts.

"There are more than 200 PCs sitting in property cupboards which contain encrypted data, for which we have considerable evidence that they contain data that relates to a serious crime," revealed Sarti. "Not one of those suspects has claimed that the files are business-related, and in many cases the names of the files indicate that they are important to our investigations."

Earlier this summer, the Government announced that it plans to activate Part III of the Regulations of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, which will give the police the power, in some circumstances, to demand an encryption key from a suspect.

Part III of the RIP Act has been heavily criticised in the past by security professionals and academics, who believe that it is a dangerous and badly written piece of legislation that cannot be properly implemented.

Sarti was speaking at an open meeting to discuss the Home Office consultation about the draft code of practice for Part III of the RIP Act, which will govern how its powers can be used.

The meeting was organised by the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR).

Caspar Bowden, a former director of the FIPR who led the fight against the introduction of the RIP Act several years ago, told the meeting that Part III was flawed because defendents could be prosecuted for simply losing an encryption key.

"The burden of proof is on the suspect to prove that they don't have the key, and if they fail they go to prison. But, if they can give an explanation for not having the key, then the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that they are lying," said Bowden.

Bowden explained that in circumstances when the police suspected someone had encrypted incriminating data, officers could issue an order under Section 49 of the Act, ordering the suspect to hand over the key. Failure to do so could lead to a prosecution under Section 53 of the Act.

Dr Richard Clayton, an FIPR trustee and a computer security researcher at the University of Cambridge, told the meeting that the code of practice also lacked clear powers against officials who were guilty of making "deliberate mistakes" in their use of the RIP Act to obtain private data. Clayton also argued that businesses may take their encryption keys out of UK jurisdiction so that they can't be seized.

But Simon Watkin of the Home Office, who drafted the code of practice, insisted that the time was right to activate Part III of the Act as the police are now finding that their investigations are being thwarted by encryption

"The police have come to us and said that they need powers to get hold of encrypted data off suspects," said Watkin."We've got a law like this on the statute book, and we've been waiting for people like them to come and give us compelling reasons why they need it."

One police officer in the audience argued that, in the case of alleged child abuse, it was vital to access all the files on a suspect's machine so that the victims could be identified.

But Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist who has served as an expert witness in many computer-related trials, insisted that Part 3 of the RIP Act could not be justified.

"A person who rapes and damages a 12-year-old is going to get a bloody long sentence, and bloody good too. What's the the point in the police saying we need a monstrous law so we can get to the rest of the data?" asked Campbell.

The consultation on the draft code of practice will run until 31 August, and Watkin indicated that submissions received after that date will still be considered. You can see the code of practice on the Home Office Web site.

Topic: Security

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  • Arthur B. wrote:


    So we are to believe that terrorists, paedophiles and burglars are computer savvy enough to encrypt their data to such extend that it can't be decrypted by one of the zillions of freely downloadable decrypt programs available on the Internet (never mind the commercial professional decrypt programs and tactics the best our tax money can buy).

    [End Quote]

    Ok Arthur:
    Decrypt This:

    -----BEGIN PGP MESSAGE-----
    Charset: UTF-8
    Version: GnuPG v1.4.5 (GNU/Linux)

    -----END PGP MESSAGE-----
  • In answer to Arthur B.'s suggestion that those "savvy" enough to use encryption would also use steganography to hide their guilty secrets. Actually, if the forensics folks are already looking at a suspicious computer, it is far easier to find hidden files then to decrypt them if properly encrypted.


    So, if the cops know that there is something on my computer that they are interested in, it is fairly easy to find the "hidden" files. As far as we know. no one has "broken" public key encryption.
  • Why can't there be more people like Arthur B. at least he knows how to speak his mind.
  • Encryption keys are _public_ . This won't help the police. They want _DECRYPTION_ keys.
  • Hi Ron,

    That's an interesting point, thanks. We'd taken the view that it was correct to use 'encryption keys' as a general term. As you point out, in cases where someone has used a different key to encrypt and decrypt data, the police would want the private key rather than the public one.

    I'm going to ponder this - we may change our style overnight :)


  • It seems as though the law and everyone in it are chasing their tales again.

    "i have heard something about this enciphring thingy, anyone know what it does?" someone just out of Alevels says "its to do with making your data so no one can read it without a decryption key"

    senior decision maker "ohh we cant have that, we will make it illegal for people to hide their data! yeah that will show them"

    The computer world then just moves up again and creates hidden ciphering, stenography,

    Try true crypt, cipher your data into the protected partition, then protect that with meaningless junk in the public partition, when asked for the decryption keys you just give them the publicly available junk decryptor and they see nothing is worth viewing. I adhered to the law just not quite as they had hoped :)
  • So we are to believe that terrorists, paedophiles and burglars are computer savvy enough to encrypt their data to such extend that it can't be decrypted by one of the zillions of freely downloadable decrypt programs available on the Internet (never mind the commercial professional decrypt programs and tactics the best our tax money can buy) yet at the same time are computer ignorant enough to not resort to seemingly meaningless file names and getting rid of log files (for which there are also zillions of freely downloadable tools available) and in general are not able to cover their tracks?

    And this is good enough reason to do anything but dismissing the responsible persons who have failed us time and time again so far (yet demanding more budget and more powers 'to get the job done' each and every time the word terrorist appears on front pages)?
  • All they have to do is talk to matey boy gates you he of the mint sauce flavoured OS windBloZe ask him to build them a back door and bing a large part of the computers in the world wide ass open ! ..

    I hasten to add not mine .. no gates here
  • Perhaps it is time that civil servants like Simon Watkin were moved on. He appears to be one of the senior ranking civil servants who are somewhat usurping what should be politicians' decisions.
    As a former Private Secretary to David Blunkett I dare to ask how he feels qualified to make the decision to implement this very controversial Section of the RIP Act.
    As one involved in preparation of the Act he should most certainly NOT be in any way related to it's implementation.
    Perhaps he should remember that the primary duty of police is to PREVENT crime - in this context to eliminate the paedophilia from the internet, which would in turn prevent its' downloading onto computers and the criminilisation of the downloaders.
  • The whole question of encryption needs rethinking. It is used because "it is there" in amny cases. If data is so vital then the owners should physically protect it as they would have done a decade ago. In the meantime make it a criminal offence to refuse to divukge encryption when ordered to release it by a High Court judge and the offender to remain in custody and he/she releases the data. I hope that Campbell and his kind never have their loved ones killed by a terrorist becuse they were able to retain the keys.
  • The police want powers seize encryption keys; why give them just powers to seize encryption keys only; why not give them powers to sleep with our wives as well and also allow them to tap our phones and allow the police to be our one and only ISP so that they can scutinize all our e-mail and tap into our computers any time they wish.After all freedom and democracyand privacy depends on the meaning the police and politicions give us. We are nothing but a bunch of sheep and the politicions know that. That is why, just when the voters started getting upset with the Blair /Bush stand on Isreal and the Lebenon; we have a security alert; how convenient,to divert the attention of the voters. The threat has been there for some time and it seemed not important enough to tell the voters.So far,the security vigilance; shot an innocent man seven times in the head; raided a home in forest gate and shot another innocent man and now the the police are harrasing the person they shot in forest gate with bogus police charges. After all we should have learned our lesson on how the politicions minuplate inteligence information to suit their racist attitudes. THAT IS WHY SOME OF US BECOME POLITICIONS; so long as you give the sheep enough green grass; the sheep will swollow poison if necessary to please their shepherd/politicion.
  • I believe some years ago some Israel scientists proved that PGP can be broken by means of some sort of brute force attack within 8 hours using about a 1000 common PC's or so. Now legally I can't own a botnet of that size (or any size) so I can't point out in public how wrong you are but you might want to rethink how secure any data is if someone with enough resources really wants to break it. Some might think that the police would have enough resources. At least more then most others.

    As for forensics getting interested in a suspicious computer. I would advise to be far more interested in the communications eminating from that computer then the actual files on that computer. Reason being that there's no way of knowing what kind of tampering could have been done on that computer off-line while the same can't be said from the captured communications eminating from that computer if captured under the right (legal) circumstances.

    Furthermore, there are tons of ways to hide data. The worst thing to do is to concentrate on anything that is within the control of the suspect (like the local computer). One needs to concentrate on anything that's (mostly) outside of the control of the suspect.
  • Arthur B. wrote:

    I believe some years ago some Israel scientists proved that PGP can be broken by means of some sort of brute force attack within 8 hours using about a 1000 common PC's or so. Now legally I can't own a botnet of that size (or any size) so I can't point out in public how wrong you are but you might want to rethink how secure any data is if someone with enough resources really wants to break it. Some might think that the police would have enough resources. At least more then most others.

    [End Quote]

    From Wikipedia:


    When used properly, PGP is believed to be capable of very high security. It is widely believed, within the cryptographic community, that
  • Nope. The police can't say hidden data is relevant to their case until they discover and unhide that data first. Until then they can only assume the hidden data is relevant to their case (like assuming that file names have to say something meaningfull about the file content).

    Furthermore, the police have stated that they've nothing else on the suspects (they all walk free because). Obviously the police can't crack the data themselves or else we wouldn't have this discussion.

    So that means that on nothing else but a police assumption (like file names) people are expected to hand over their private keys (never mind if a virus eaten it or people simply forgot under the stress of getting arrested and such) or face serious jail time instead. Wow, and this in cases where the police has nothing else on the suspects but some suspicious looking file names (or else they could bring other criminal charges against the suspects).

    Concerning the ability to crack data. Sure, an intercepted PGP encrypted data transmission is nearly impossible to crack (short of a lucky shot). But things change dramaticly to your favour once you have physical access to the originating machine itself. For one, passphrases are commonly phrases people can remember and therefor not so complex as machine based phrases. As such easier to brute force.
    Another thing are flaws in the encryption programs used. Most programs contain flaws that are solved over time. It's not unreasonable to think that machines that have been collecting dust for over a year now have (encrypting) programs installed on them for which various security issues are known by now. In other words, if you can't crack the data then crack the program. Furthermore, not everything is PGP encrypted. Plenty of people out there who rely on non PGP based encryption schemas. Plenty of those are much easier to crack.

    Somehow I don't think that the police have managed to confiscate the only machines in the entire UK that are fully up to specs to the highest standards of modern security (even though they've been collecting dust for over a year now). As such I wouldn't be willing to hand over my encryption keys whenever the police feels lost. First the police needs to demonstrate a more then average best effort in doing a best effort themselves. There are plenty of creative ways to crack data BUT I WON'T REVEAL THEM IN PUBLIC no matter how many disagreeing comments I get. For those of you who think otherwise nonetheless, do feel safe in your false sense of security. You have my sympathy.

    As for the Israel scientists. I've found the press release in question. It turns out to be RSA specific and only mentions PGP as a side note. My apologies for the confussion about that.