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Wednesday, March 24, 1999 Published at 17:33 GMT


Encryption debate hots up

Companies like the Royal Mail want to be TTPs without key escrow

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The UK government has come under renewed fire over its plans to provide a legislative framework for electronic commerce.

E-conomy - Code of Conduct
The minister responsible for the IT industry, Michael Wills, was ambushed by a show of hands supporting a one-month extension to a consultation deadline, when he spoke at a packed conference on Tuesday.

Mr Wills told a sceptical audience of academics, civil liberties groups and industry experts that the 26-day period allowed for comments on the Electronic Commerce Bill proposals should help people to focus on the issues with greater clarity.

Real solutions for real people

A joint task force of government officials and industry figures were given the same April 1 deadline to come up with an alternative to "key escrow" - a system which would allow law enforcement agencies suspecting serious crimes to unlock encoded data by gaining access to keys lodged with bodies known as Trusted Third Parties (TTPs).

Key escrow has been condemned by civil liberties groups as a threat to the privacy of Internet users. Business leaders have described the proposal as expensive, impractical and likely to drive abroad billions of pounds worth of business in providing secure transactions.

Mr Wills amused some at the Scrambling for Safety III conference when he said the Internet was no longer the territory of idealists who saw it as an asylum from the reach of the state, but was now affecting "real people" for good and for ill.

He said if the Net was left as it was, the conflicts of the non-virtual world would most likely seep into cyberspace.

Not the last word

The minister said the increasing availability of strong encryption meant the government had to act to modernise law enforcement powers.

"We do not regard [the legislation] as the last word on the Internet. It will be a continuing debate through the process of this legislation and beyond it. We hope you will regard this as the start of a dialogue with government," he said.

Conference organiser Caspar Bowden asked for an immediate show of hands from anyone who supported the consultation period being extended to April 30 and the minister was confronted with a sea of raised arms.

No magic solution

"I would urge you please don't focus on this [deadline]," said Mr Wills, "What matters is the outcome...this government cares not about input but about outcomes, let's make the bill as good as possible."

He pointed out from his own straw poll of the room that most people already had had enough time to formulate clear views on the subject

Jim Norton from the Cabinet Office's E-Commerce Unit, who is involved with the joint task force, denied it had to come up with an alternative to key escrow by April 1.

"What the task force will be doing is making a series of recommendations which ministers will have to decide on, we are looking at a way forward for years to come," he said.

"It has been asked to come back with a credible plan, not a magic solution."

Lend me your URLs

Although it was well past the ides of March, the Department of Trade and Industry's Stephen Pride, seen as a Brutus figure, chose to paraphrase Mark Antony in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar when he began: "I come not to bury the Internet but to praise it."

Mr Pride, attending five conferences on the issue this week, was treated as an honourable man but was subjected to a barrage of criticisms of the consultation document released on March 5: "Building Confidence in Electronic Commerce."

"We are absolutely determined to get this right for users as well as suppliers," he said. He expressed satisfaction that, despite their concerns about the tight deadline, attendees were more concerned about discussing substance.

He defended the choice of the telecommunications watchdog Oftel as the licensing authority for the new Trusted Third Parties.

"Phones and computers are converging. It has a great deal of experience that is relevant to this field," he said.

'Appalling' NCIS evidence

Peter Sommer, special adviser to the parliamentary select committee studying the e-commerce issue, said he had been appalled at the evidence given to it by the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

NCIS had not provided any statistics on encryption crimes in the UK, it had made no attempt to cost its needs and could only point to patchy computer training for law enforcement officers.

Roger Till of E Centre UK, speaking for industry, said it wanted a light, crisp bill which would give the perception that Britain was a good place to do electronic commerce.

He said the government should recognise that April 1 was a joke as a deadline and he was concerned that key escrow might make a comeback.

Other countries were not following this approach. France had turned away from it and the US congress was realising it was not appropriate.

Accountability 'out of control'

The investigative journalist Duncan Campbell told the conference that interception warrants obtained by law enforcement agencies for communications had increased four-fold since 1990 and were now running at around 1,800 a year. This suggested the accountability process was out of control, he said.

But there were not even figures on a new kind of surveillance, which only needed the permission of a senior police officer. This was the use of software to sort through telephone records and find links between people throuhg numbers called.

He also spoke about the Walsh report, an Australian government document which suggested surveillance methods such as direct hacking, pre-emptive tampering with equipment, information-stealing viruses, and software audio, video and data bugs.

  • The London Internet Exchange (LINX) held an inaugural Internet Privacy Forum on Monday aimed at increasing users' confidence that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were safeguarding their privacy.

    It followed adverse publicity of ISPs' discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers on legal requirements to provide information on subscribers when requested.

    A working group was set up to draft an Internet user privacy code. The forum, attended by ISPs, pressure groups, the DTI and IBM, will meet again on June 2.

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