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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

MondayThey promised us a Freedom of Information Act. It turns out that the information they want to be free is ours: the DTI is planning a remarkably cunning and reprehensible scheme to con us out of our passwords.
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

There was a conference today, called the International Commerce Exchange. At it, the DTI announced the Millennium Bug And Electronic Commerce Bill, to come in ASAP (and you can bet Mandelson's last pair of Lycra cycling shorts it'll be here before the FoI). One of the things the MBECB sets out is the way digital signatures will be accepted by the courts as proof of a document's trustworthiness.

Here's the critical chain of reasoning:

  • If you want your electronic documents to be accepted by the courts, they'll have to be digitally signed with a signature key.
  • An acceptable signature key is one provided by a State-licenced digital signature company. Oftel will be managing this.
  • If you are a licenced digital signature company, you'll also have to be licenced for any other confidentiality service you offer. And if you're licenced for encryption, you'll have to keep copies of the keys that all your users use.
  • If you hand over those keys to the police, you're forbidden by law from telling your client.
  • Step 3's the nasty one. What have confidentiality keys got to do with signature keys? Nothing. What happens if you give your encryption keys to a third party? They are no longer confidential. You have lost control of your own information, just in order to give the Government and the judiciary the ability to decode your messages, whether or not you are doing anything wrong. Nobody, but nobody, believes in this idea -- called key escrow -- except the spooks.

    This bill will only work if people don't twig what's going on, and don't kick up a stink. Your job, distant reader, is to find out what's going on and, if you don't like it, do that stink thing.

    For more information, go here. Please read it. Tell people about it. Whatever your views, it's wrong that such a fundamental power should be presented in such a sly manner.

    We'll keep you up to date.


    Voice controlled cars are the stars at the Birmingham Car Show, I'm told. I know next to nothing about cars and care slightly less, although finding out that Top Gear comes second only to Baywatch as the most watched show in the world is rather pleasing. No wonder Loaded does so well.

    One small thing worries me. Danny Baker. OK, so he's not a small thing, but this erstwhile DJ has a record of messing with other people's technology. Once he triggered the Local Traffic Information signal on Greater London Radio, causing car radios all over the capital to switch to GLR from whatever they were listening to: "We have control of your radio!" he cackled, before switching it all back off.

    So what's going to happen when he's talking on the radio in a voice-controlled car? You'll find yourself in reverse with the aircon and windscreen wipers on while the volume of the radio itself has gone up to eleven. We really must watch the way all these systems interact. There'll be trouble... you mark my words.


    DSL Update! A week on, and... nothing has happened. Well, they did say ten working days: I've taken to getting down on my knees by the telephone socket at home and whispering "soon, soon, my little chum... soon you will fly!".

    It's a good job I live by myself.

    I say that nothing has happened, but that's not strictly true. A friend signs up for the trial almost a week after I did, and gets a reference number just fifty higher. Can this be true? Is nobody bothered? I suppose BT has done almost no publicity for this -- well, have you heard anything about it on the radio or telly? -- and there's also evidence that it's caught in a trap of its own making. Ask yourself: who's going to be keen to get on the trial? The early adopters, that's who -- people like you and I who leap at the chance to play with version 0.9 of anything cool. Early adopters are now part of the parlance of marketing men the world over -- we get the groundswell going, start the talk, spread the word on the ground. We're natural beta testers, the perfect triallists: we use the system, forgive it its foibles, provide informed feedback.

    The trouble with the early adopters for the BT DSL trial is that many of them have just early-adopted Home Highway. And the DSL trial doesn't work with Home Highway.



    Talk about a long day! Out of the goodness of my heart (and not because I'm a media tart who'll do anything to get behind an open mike), I appear to have agreed to be a pundit on Wake Up To Money, on Radio 5. At a quarter to six. In the morning. And, at 7pm, I'm due on a discussion panel show for the Sky channel dotTV, talking about privacy and the Net. Which things nicely book-end a full day's work in the office. Phew, eh, readers?

    The radio goes swimmingly, and not just because nobody gives me any coffee and I've had three hours sleep and everything's swimming.... I head into the office. Then, at three PM, dotTV calls and cancels. Apparently, someone in an upper echelon at Sky has decided they want a suit to balance the non-corporate members of the panel and as I was the last one to be invited, I'm the first to be dropped in favour of The Man From EDS. Which is annoying, but that's showbiz. I allow myself a moment of petulance on the phone to the producer, and immediately feel like a prize berk. Just one of those things, eh? How can I work with these... AMATEURS! Get my agent!

    So I calm down -- as I must, not being Chris Evans -- but then I talk to a friend who's also a regular on dotTV. He's thinking of giving it up, after a rather strange incident where he was talking jocularly about the way the Sky Digital set-top box uses the phone line (which it does). The program is on tape and finished to the satisfaction of all -- except, guess who, someone in an upper echelon. Who takes exception to the reference, and demands it removed, which it is.

    People talk boldly about editorial independence and proprietorial interference, as if they were easy to define. When is something entertainment, and when is it information to be trusted? The lines get ever more blurred; the difficulties in deciding where to draw the line increase. In the end, it's up to the people who do all this to say what it is they're doing: whatever it is I'm doing at Ziff I'm glad it's not liable to be squelched by The Man.


    I spend a brief moment in conversation with Chris Lewis, The Man at ZDNet UK. Here at Ziff we've just upgraded our dial-up stuff that we use to connect to the work LAN when we're out and about, and he's been trying to sort out his ISDN router link from home to work. Last night, he managed it -- well, it was 6am when he got it going, but he started it last night. "The saddest thing is," he said in a sleep-deprived voice, "I had to take my Linux box down to plug in a new network card. Three and a half months of uptime down the drain". I consoled him, telling him that if his machine had been running without a reboot for nearly a third of a year it would probably have been happy to see in the Millennium. And since I don't expect my computer to stay up for a third of a day, Windows being what it is, I can't sympathise too much.

    Which doesn't alter the fact that Chris, a consummate expert, had spent a good eight hours faffing around with boxes, all of which supposedly used the same standards, in order to make them do a reasonably simple thing that we are repeatedly told is both important and easy to do. I've said it before and I'll say it again: what chance do the punters have?

    (Captain's Log, Supplemental: According to an otherwise well-done Star Trek: Voyager page a species called the Nyrians once tried to take over the ship with an elaborate centrifuge. But they were probably just spinning a tale...)

    Editorial standards