Straw blames 'naive' libertarians for weak encryption laws

Jack Straw, who as Home Secretary introduced the UK's toughest encryption laws yet, says they were weakened unecessarily

The former Home Secretary Jack Straw has attacked what he calls "naive" civil liberty groups for opposing Internet snooping laws which could, he believes, have prevented the horrendous terrorist attacks on the US last month.

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the Foreign Secretary told presenter Sue MacGregor that non-government organisations pressurised the government into watering down Internet encryption laws, which he said could have helped detect the 11 terrorists known to have passed through the UK on their way to the US.

"We needed to take powers so that we could decrypt commercial encrypted emails and other communications. Why? Because we knew that terrorists were going to use this," said Straw said in his radio interview on Friday. "What happened? Large parts of the industry, backed by some people who will now recognise they were very naive in retrospect, said, 'you mustn't do that' and the pressure was so great that we...had to back down a bit."

But Straw's support of tighter encryption laws to protect against the growing threat of organised terrorism is irrelevant, according to Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research. "It is impossible to stop terrorists communicating over the Internet because if they use dead letter boxes and information-hiding techniques such as steganography you cannot detect them communicating. Restricting encryption will do precisely nothing to prevent this."

The Home Office is still to introduce Part III of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which grants law enforcement officers the power to demand decryption keys. "The government has done nothing on encryption since the Act became law -- there still has to be a consultation on the Code of Practice for Part III, as there are many issues left dangling from the House of Lords debate," said Bowden.

In his controversial interview, Straw claimed that the terrorist attacks succeeded because "people have had a two-dimensional view of civil liberties." He said that necessary encryption laws were sacrificed in order to preserve civil liberties, but argued "the most fundamental civil liberty is the right to life, and preserving that and sustaining that must come before others."

According to Bowden, the only case in which encryption laws would hold some weight is in the financial sector, where the government could prohibit the use of encryption that it does not hold the keys to. "Any suggestion that the government would escrow only in the financial sector would lead to a political storm," said Bowden. "It would be extremely ironic, since in the mid 90s, the financial sector was always the first to be exempt in the relaxation of key escrow controls."

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