Pressure grows on government to scrap snooping bill

Pressure is growing on the government to scrap the RIP bill as the British Chambers of Commerce joins the chorus of disapproval Monday
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

The government claims its email snooping bill is necessary to keep law enforcers up to date with criminals using the Net but opponents argue it is an unprecedented intrusion on privacy. In a highly critical letter to Home Secretary Jack Straw director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) Chris Humphries warns that government plans to make the UK the best place to trade electronically will be scuppered if the bill becomes law in its current state.

There are three main problems the BCC has with the bill according to principal policy officer Mark Sharman. Firstly it questions the government's estimates of the amount email snooping will cost operators and service providers. "The feedback to us is that the estimates are unrealistically low," he says.

The BCC is also concerned that the method recommended by government for accessing decryption keys is unworkable in a business environment and worries that government has not put in adequate security measures to protect keys. In his letter Humphries calls on government to act swiftly and amend the bill.

Government is determined to stick to its guns. According to a Home Office spokesman there will be "stringent security" to safeguard keys and he promises that government will be liable for any mistakes. "In the unlikely event of a key being revealed we are open to a civil liability action. We can be sued."

Civil rights campaigners have long argued that RIP is at odds with the Human Rights Act -- which will be introduced to parliament this summer. The section of the bill causing most controversy from a civil liberties standpoint is the section which requires a suspect unable to hand over decryption keys to prove that he/she never owned them or face a two year prison sentence. This, civil libertarians claim, is a reversal of the burden of proof. The Home Office has constantly denied it. "It doesn't reverse the burden of proof. It requires the prosecution to prove that someone had a key," a spokesman said.

Opponents of the bill believe RIP will have a tough ride when it goes to committee stage at the Lords next week. Head of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) Caspar Bowden is hopeful that with mounting Conservative and Lib Dem opposition to the bill, it can be prevented from going through. "I predict the Home Office is underestimating how serious business and political opposition to this bill is. I expect it to be amended," he says.

Labour backbencher and head of the all-party Internet group Derek Wyatt agrees. " The reversal of the burden of proof is a nonsense and I bet is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. It will be changed, it has to be. I'm very confident it will."

A recent report suggested that 75 percent of UK companies currently monitor their employees web usage. Tony Westbrook thinks that's fair enough -- as long as you know you are being watched. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

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