New surveillance bill comes under fire

Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill violates human rights law, say civil liberties campaigners

The government Thursday published the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill, branded "impossible" by Internet campaigners for its potential human rights conflicts.

The bill is designed to regulate the measures that police and security agencies in Britain are legally entitled to employ in order to eavesdrop on members of the public. The most controversial aspect of the bill is the recommendation that law enforcers be given legal power to confiscate keys required to decrypt encrypted computer communications, a provision that also existed in the DTI's E-Commerce Bill.

Critics of the bill claim this measure could lead to the punishment of innocent individuals. They point out that under this ruling, anyone who is suspected of a misdemeanour and has received an unsolicited encrypted message could be subject to legal penalties for not handing it over.

According to Caspar Bowden of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), RIP is totally unworkable and unjust: "The DTI jettisoned decryption powers from its e-Communications Bill last year because it did not believe that a law which presumes someone guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent was compatible with the Human Rights Act," he says. "This law could make a criminal out of anyone who uses encryption to protect their privacy on the Internet."

The clauses relating to the confiscation of decryption keys are likely to land the government in all sorts of hot water, says Bowden. He predicts that this issue could lead to accusations of human rights abuse under forthcoming European law: "Following the recent liberalisation of US export laws, as tens of thousands of ordinary computer users start to use encryption, a test-case looks inevitable after the Human Rights Act comes into force in October."

Other civil libertarians agree with Bowden that the bill appears to be little more than a renamed version of section 3 of the E-commerce Bill, rejected by the government last year because of possible human rights violations.

Malcom Hutty, cofounder of Internet rights group Stand.org is appalled by the approval of this bill. "It's pretty horrifying," he says. "The DTI dropped this from the e-commerce bill because it was clearly in breach of the human rights bill. For the home office to take it up is shocking."

Hutty foresees an Orwellian future in Britain if the bill is enforced: "For them to have the capability to monitor such a huge number of Internet users goes beyond normal police work and amounts to mass surveillance."

Home Secretary Jack Straw has downplayed the potential for legal tangles. At the bill's publication he commented: "In my view the provisions of the regulation of investigatory powers bill are compatible with the convention rights."

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

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