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The Three Minute Guide to RIP
new bill promises email tapping
from firstname.lastname@example.org The Observer, March 12th, 2000
Imagine: it's a dark night, and you are trying to get some cash from an ATM machine. Suddenly you notice a large figure in uniform behind you. Distracted, you mistype your PIN number. The machine demands you type it again, so you do - and collect your money.
Then the figure puts his hand on your shoulder and you discover he's a policeman. A large, unfriendly policeman. He says he has reason to suspect you are up to no good and demands that you tell him your PIN number. You refuse or, in the confusion, you can't remember it.
Before you know what's happening you've been arrested and are standing before a judge. The charge? Failing to disclose your PIN number to a duly authorised person. The fact that you cannot remember it is no defence. It is assumed that you were up to no good - unless you can prove to the contrary. You are sent down for two years.
Unbelievable? Couldn't happen in a liberal democracy? Well, I have news for you.
Last week Jack Straw, New Labour's avuncular Interior Minister, introduced a Bill into the Commons which aims to create an analogous situation in relation to data encryption. A PIN number is analogous to a cryptographic key such as you might use to protect your email - or confidential files on your hard disk - from prying eyes.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill gives Mr Straw the power to demand you decrypt data on demand. Failing to provide the key will be a criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of two years in jail, and carries with it the presumption of guilt. You must somehow prove you do not have the key. That you may have mislaid or forgotten it will not be a defence.
And if, having suffered a miscarriage of justice under this statute, you decide to complain in public, 'Liberal Jack' has another ace up his sleeve - you can be sent down for a further five years!
Meanwhile, paedophiles and criminals, who really do have appalling stuff on their disks and in their emails, will keep their mouths shut and take the two years for refusing to decrypt on demand. After all, it's a better deal than doing five to 10 years for a really serious offence.
There is more.
The Bill requires UK Internet Service Providers to install systems which will allow Secretary Straw and his duly authorised goons to track subscribers' communications traffic. That means every email you send - and every reply you receive, plus information on every website you've visited, every book you've bought from Amazon, every air-ticket you've purchased, every piece of software you've ever downloaded. And if you have encrypted your communications - well, see the last paragraph, but one above.
On what grounds might the Interior Ministry justify such an invasion of your privacy? Here's a list from Section 20 of the Bill: national security (not defined, of course); preventing or detecting crime; preventing disorder; public safety; protecting public health.
Oh, and Mr Straw can lawfully authorise electronic snooping 'in the interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom'.
Imagine how that last justification will play with foreign businesses wondering whether to set up in e-commerce in the UK. And then ponder the fact that the official line is to make the UK the most e-friendly state in Europe by 2002. Joined-up government, my eye.
Meanwhile, the Irish government is legislating to make it illegal even for it to snoop on Internet traffic, so if this Bill makes it to the Statute book we can all move to Irish ISPs.
I wonder what Secretary Straw will do about that? Reproduced with permission from the author, email@example.com
Human Rights in UK (Guardian)
Government sweeps aside privacy rights (Guardian 11.Jun.02)
British liberty, RIP (11.Jun.02)
RIP bill passed (31.July.02)
Warning over wiretaps (22.08.01 BBC)
RIP BILL: the empire bytes back (4.Aug.00)
New bill promises email tapping (25.May.00)
MI5 builds new centre to read net emails (30.Apr.00)
For more info on the RIP Bill:
RIP Info Centre
RIP Act (Home Office)