At the heart of the surveillance debate is the proposed Interception of Communications Act (IOCA), which, if it is made law, will give the police access to all electronic communications. Jane Wakefield exposes the truth behind one of the most controversial bills in Britain's digital age.
Warrants for interception have previously been issued only by the Secretary of State but the updated IOCA plans to loosen this rule and give senior civil servants the right to issue warrants in some circumstances. Critics argue that it should be a judge's decision to issue warrants. "It is not the state's job to intervene in this," says Simon Davies, head of civil liberties group Privacy International . "Judicial issues should not be linked to politics."
Privacy advocates argue that proposed updates to IOCA pose the biggest threat to cyber privacy but say there is as much to worry about in the e-commerce bill . The name of the bill has been changed from e-commerce to e-communications, which critics take to indicate the government is more concerned with how communication is used, rather than how e-commerce should be developed.
The industry can claim something of a victory in getting the government to drop key escrow -- the system that gives law enforcers mandatory access to decryption keys. But in its wake comes a system industry observers feel is even more damaging to civil liberties. Under the e-commerce bill, which is currently under consultation, Police will have the right to demand decryption keys be handed over if they suspect a crime has been committed. Refusal, regardless of whether a person has the key or not, could result in a two year prison sentence. (See also: "Straw petitioned on commerce bill controversy ".)
The proposals are flawed and open to abuse, according to shadow spokesman for Trade and Industry Alan Duncan. He argues that anyone with a grudge could send an incriminating, encrypted message, tip off the police and wait for their victim to go to jail after failing to produce decryption keys they never possessed.
Nicholas Bohm argues that the old adage "innocent until proven guilty" goes out of the window under the proposals. People will have to prove they do not have decryption keys, which reverses the burden of proof , he argues.
Duncan believes the government will never keep pace with the digital revolution rendering the whole legislation "a dodo in a few years time". "Let the e-commerce revolution happen without government interference," says Duncan. "The e-communications bill should be a three page document, not a 40 page document," he adds.
Also of concern is who is setting the e-government agenda. Crime on the Internet is a Home Office issue but the e-commerce bill comes from the Department of Trade and Industry. Labour MP and head of the All-party Internet group Derek Wyatt, believes law enforcement and developing the Internet is meeting head-on at government level. "The Home Office is running things rather than the Department of Trade and Industry. The Home Office is solely concerned with policing. The government has got the balance wrong," he says.
Both the e-communications bill and IOCA are in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights according to experts. (See also: "Is e-privacy a human right? ")
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