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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 08:58 GMT
UK snooping laws in disarray
A House of Commons debate
The RIP Act was rushed through parliament
By BBC News Online's Jane Wakefield

Internet snooping laws in the UK have not been implemented and are proving ineffectual in the fight against terrorism and crime.

Caspar Bowden, an expert on surveillance legislation, said he believed that the laws governing surveillance of the net were unenforceable because they had been so badly bungled.

If the legal principle is accepted today it is still a tragic loss of civil liberties

Caspar Bowden
Head of FIPR
Moreover, legislation requiring net service providers to retain traffic data and information about users could break the European Human Rights Act.

"Blanket traffic retention is a breach of the Human Rights Act," said Mr Bowden, who is the head of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

"All the Data Protection heads across Europe have been saying this for two years. They are the legal authority and the government is ignoring what they say."

The government introduced its controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 18 months ago.

It said it was a necessary reworking of surveillance laws in the light of the sophisticated use of new technologies by criminals and terrorists.

Critics though have argued that the plans are impossible to implement and damaging to both UK e-commerce and privacy.

Black boxes

The plan to force some net service companies to install so-called black boxes in order to monitor internet traffic came in for particularly heavy criticism.

The legislation was rushed through parliament despite industry calls for more time to work out the logistics.

"The law has been exposed as unworkable and has ended up bungled so in the end everyone, both civil liberties campaigners and the law enforcers, has lost," says Mr Bowden.

Asked about the progress of the RIP Act, the Home Office said that a "public consultation" was needed before a controversial part of it covering the complex procedure for handing over encryption keys could be implemented.

Civil liberties

On the issue of black boxes, the government said it was currently setting up a technical advisory board to look at the issues.

"We are in the process of advertising for a chairperson and six members representing the interests of the communication service providers," said the Home Office in a statement.

The ability to monitor internet traffic is currently being discussed with industry.

"It was always our plan that these would be introduced in a slower time," said the Home Office.

Mr Bowden believes that the real reason the RIP Act was rushed through parliament had nothing to do with catching criminals and terrorists.

"The data can be obtained for public order offences, minor crimes and tax evasion," he says.

"The fact that very little on the statue book is usable may be a victory for civil liberties campaigners but if the legal principle is accepted today it is still a tragic loss of civil liberties."

See also:

12 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
'Snooping' bill protests stepped up
11 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
ISPs RIP warning
13 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Net laws could cost business
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