Friday, January 30, 1998 Published at 20:37 GMT
Labour reverses policy on Net encryption
Encryption: the key to security on the Internet
The Labour Party has agreed to allow police access to Internet encryption codes despite a pre-election pledge to protect privacy on the Net.
The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has agreed with other EU leaders that law enforcement agencies must have access to the codes used to scramble information.
They say this is necessary to crack down on organised crime which police believe may use the Internet to mask its activities.
If the policy goes ahead, it could lead to the police and other bodies having wide ranging powers to intercept e-mail, read confidential documents and tap into systems, without monitoring by the courts.
But the decision, taken by EU ministers in Birmingham, is a reversal of the party's pre-election pledge to civil liberty organisations and Internet professionals that encryption would not be touched.
Encryption allows personal or sensitive information to be electronically transferred safely through the Internet, providing privacy to individuals and security to companies.
Internet experts say that "strong encryption" is necessary to protect individual users and improve the chances of so-called e-business taking off in coming years.
The manifesto said: "It is important that privacy is rigorously protected over the new networks, for both personal and commercial reasons.
"Attempts to control the use of encryption technology are wrong in principle, unworkable in practice, and damaging to the long-term economic value of the information networks.
"There is no fundamental difference between an encrypted file and a locked safe.
"It is not necessary to criminalise a large section of the network-using public to control the activities of a very small minority of law-breakers."
The manifesto did suggest allowing police to seek a court order to access codes for a "legitimate anti-criminal purpose".
The policy goes further than the scheme backed by many Internet users where a named third party holds keys to so-called "strong" encryption codes.
The previous government's Science Minister, Ian Taylor, launched proposals to license "trusted third parties" shortly before the General Election.
One encryption professional said: "Jack Straw wants to clamp down on cyber crime but the Labour manifesto before the election made no mention of this.
"Labour said legislation would be unworkable and they stated very clearly that they would not support it.
"All of British industry is against this, people in our business are against it, and it was tried in the United States and failed there."
He added: "This is a very clear U-turn and it looks like they have been listening to the people at GCHQ who are the only ones in favour of allowing access to codes."
A spokesperson for the Labour Party was unavailable for comment.