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New bill promises email tapping
from Mark Ward, BBC News Online Thursday, 25 May, 2000

The UK is leading the world when it comes to high-tech spying on its citizens, say civil liberty and privacy groups. The campaigners fear that if a bill that is getting its second reading in the House of Lords on Thursday becomes law, the police and security forces would gain abilities to snoop on British citizens using the internet that are "unprecedented in peacetime".

If the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill is passed, internet service providers will be forced to install black boxes in their data centres that connect directly to an MI5 monitoring centre in London. Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, says the bill and the black boxes give police vastly increased powers to snoop.

"They will allow anyone to watch the websites you are browsing in real time."


Police power

The government says the RIP bill is simply updating the powers of the police for the digital age. It claims the bill will help them track, trace and tap high-tech criminals who are using the internet. "The bill does not give the law enforcement agencies anymore powers than they already have," said a Home Office spokesman. But Mr Bowden says that the bill makes it much easier for the police to force net service providers to provide a list of the websites customers are visiting.

Currently if the police want to eavesdrop on private communications they have to get a judicial or ministerial permission in the form of a warrant.

Liberty lost

This change also has the Data Protection Commission worried. "The judicial process is an independent review of whether the intrusion is justified," said David Smith, assistant data protection commissioner. He said without these checks there was a danger that the right to personal privacy would be infringed.

The Home Office spokesman says the bill imposes greater restrictions on the ability of the police to tap communications.

"The bill will restrict the use of these powers more than they are at the moment," he said. "The police will have to satisfy more checks than they do now."

Mr Bowden says the government has overlooked key facts about the way that the internet works. A phone call can be tapped because it directly connects the people talking.

By contrast data travelling over the internet is chopped up into packets and reaches a destination by any number of routes. "If you want to tap anything on the internet, you have to tap everything and throw away what you don't want," he says.

Further reading:
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)
MI5 builds new centre to read net emails (30.Apr.00)
The Three Minute Guide to RIP (12.Mar.00)

For more info on the RIP Bill:
Echelon Project
RIP Info Centre
RIP Act (Home Office)

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