Big Brother plans pushed through Parliament

Critics called Investigatory Powers Bill a scheme to push through controversial e-surveillance measures

The government's decision to push through controversial electronic surveillance plans drew fire from civil liberties and privacy experts on Wednesday.

In a surprise move, the government announced in the Queen's speech that it will create a new bill, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, to carry forward updates to the widely-criticised Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) and parts of the e-communications bill.

Part three of the e-communications bill forces suspects to hand over decryption keys or face up to two years in prison, and according to legal experts reverses the burden of proof, or the rule that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Updates to the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) give law enforcers access to email and Internet traffic. Both have been attacked for being intrusive and breaking the European Convention on Human Rights .

News they are now to be introduced in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill has shocked privacy experts, who see it as a move to disguise controversial measures for easy passage into law.

Director of CyberRights & CyberLiberties, Yaman Akdeniz, welcomed the decision to remove the law enforcement section of the e-communications bill but questioned whether the new bill will protect individuals. "Whether the Home Office will take into account the strong criticism received during the consultation process remains to be seen," he said. He is in no doubt what he wants the government to do. "The balance should be struck in favour of preserving human rights rather than for the creation of a Big Brother state," he said.

Lawyer and privacy advocate Nicholas Bohm believes the government is making a rod for its back with the new bill. "After a feeble consultation which might as well not have existed for all the notice that was taken of it, they are pushing it through with unseemly haste," he said.

He believes the decision to push a law enforcement agenda on new technology will backfire. "The government is clearly frightened that criminals are using technology to obstruct law enforcement but the heavier they are, the more they end up promoting the use of strong encryption. Criminals will simply use encryption they can't break," he warned.

Director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) Caspar Bowden believes the decision to put all its surveillance policy in a new bill shows the government has acknowledged the criticism about breaking human rights. "Until today the Home Office had adamantly maintained that Part III of the bill created no human rights issues. Now they have admitted there are issues which is a huge step," he said.

Bowden believes the government needs to make drastic changes to its previous proposals. "The glaring flaw was reversing the burden of proof on possession of a decryption key. If this remains unchanged, this government will find itself on the losing side of its own 1998 Human Rights law," he warned.

The Home Office admits the government got the balance between law enforcement and digital regulation wrong. "As a result of the DTI consultation the decision was taken that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill was a better vehicle for the proposals and that it was better to be taken forward by the Home Office," a Home Office spokeswoman said.

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