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Thursday, 10 February, 2000, 13:29 GMT
Surveillance bill under fire
At issue is the burden of proof
At issue is the burden of proof
The UK Government came under fire on Thursday from the internet community after it published a Bill to regulate covert surveillance.

The critics say the legislation, if passed, could lead to innocent people being sent to jail simply because they have lost their data encryption codes.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill covers the monitoring and the interception of communications by law enforcement and security agencies. It will, for example, lay down the legal rules that must be followed by the police and security services when they tap someone's phone.

It also regulates the authorities' access to the codes that encrypt data sent over the net. Such encryption will increasingly become a routine tool of e-commerce, built into ordinary e-mail and browser software. But the Home Office is deeply concerned that criminals, such as paedophiles, will use encryption to hide their activities.

And, as a result, the Bill proposes that the police or the security services should have the power to force someone to hand over decryption keys or the plain text of specified materials, such as e-mails, and jail those who refuse.

The government believes it has built sufficient safeguards into the legislation. But Caspar Bowden, from the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said the law as drafted was "impossible" and accused the government of ignoring all the advice and lobbying it had received from the net community over the past year.

Net privacy

At issue is the burden of proof. Critics of the legislation say someone might go to jail unless they could prove they did not have a requested key - an impossible defence for someone who has lost the software code.

"This law could make a criminal out of anyone who uses encryption to protect their privacy on the internet," Mr Bowden said.

"The Department of Trade and Industry jettisoned decryption powers from its e-Communications Bill last year because it did not believe that a law which presumes someone guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent was compatible with the Human Rights Act.

"But the corpse of a law laid to rest by Trade Secretary Stephen Byers has been stitched up and jolted back into life by Home Secretary Jack Straw."

Under the new legislation, the police would have to have "reasonable grounds to believe" someone suspected illegal activity had a key. Previous attempts to draft the legislation had only used the word "appear".

Human rights

Caspar Bowden acknowledged that the change replaced a subjective test with one requiring some objective evidence. The prosecution would have to show that someone receiving encrypted e-mail has or had a key. However, he said the presumption of guilt remained for those who had genuinely lost or forgotten their keys.

"It's clear we are heading for the courts with a human rights test case," Mr Bowden told BBC News Online. "The legislation could be amended, but it's obvious the government is not going to take that course."

However, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is clearly confident about the legal advice he has received.

"The Human Rights Act and rapid change in technology are the twin drivers of the new Bill," he said.

"None of the law enforcement activities specified in the Bill is new. Covert surveillance by police and other law enforcement officers is as old as policing itself; so too is the use of informants, agents, and undercover officers.

"What is new is that for the first time the use of these techniques will be properly regulated by law, and externally supervised, not least to ensure that law enforcement operations are consistent with the duties imposed on public authorities by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act."

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