The government wants to change the Criminal Justice and Police Bill to ban hate emails and hate text messages.
Home secretary Jack Straw intends to make it a criminal offence to send hate mail by electronic means, in the same way as it is illegal to send threats in a traditional letter. Those found guilty could be sentenced to six months imprisonment or fined £5,000.
However, according to industry experts, it is very easy to send both emails and text messages in such as way that it would be almost impossible for the police to identify the sender.
Brian Gladman, ex-ministry of defence computer security expert and cryptographer, says that the technology exists to send anonymously. "It's quite easy to trace an email, but anyone wanting to hide their identity can mail it through any one of a number of remailers," he says.
Ordinary emails contain significant information about the sender, including their IP (Internet Protocol address). Internet remailers were created specifically to preserve email anonymity by stripping this information. They will send an email message from their own mail servers without including any information about the original sender. They promise never to reveal the identity of senders but, in the past, some have handed information on legal demand.
Mobile network operator Orange runs a service that lets users send SMSs to mobile phones from the Orange Web site. A spokeswoman confirmed that it would be simple for someone to use the service without giving away their identity. "Someone could go to an Internet cafe, join our service and give a false name and address, and then send messages," she explained.
Gladman says the success of government plans to restrict hate email could depend on the ability of the courts to force such services to hand over information.
A Home Office spokesman explained that legislation had to be updated to reflect electronic communication. "Our role is to ensure that the legal framework exists to take account of modern technology. It's the job of the police to look at each individual case." The spokesman compared the situation of anonymous to emails to that of someone sending an anonymous letter through the post.
The Criminal Justice and Police Bill is currently going through Parliament and Thursday's changes are part of a package of regulations designed to protect scientists from animal rights extremists, though the regulations will apply to all situations.
In a statement released on Wednesday Straw said the government is not prepared to tolerate the criminal actions of a small number of extremists using violence and intimidation. "These new measures are designed to help prevent two tactics often used by these individuals -- protesting outside employees' and directors' homes and sending intimidating mail. We want to ensure that all types of threatening messages are covered -- including those sent by text messaging and email. Tougher penalties for sending hate mail will be an added deterrent," he said.
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