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The BBC's Peter Hill
"Jack Straw said balance was being maintained"
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Tuesday, 7 March, 2000, 18:32 GMT
Computer crime plans attacked
The Bill will help fight crime say the government
The Bill will help fight crime say the government
Laws proposed by the UK Government to enable the interception of electronic communications in the battle against organised crime have been criticised as appalling and objectionable.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill debate was opened by the Home Secretary Jack Straw who said law enforcement agencies worldwide were worried about the criminal use of encryption to send coded electronic messages.

It is the most appalling legislation that I have ever seen

Ian Bruce MP
He said UK and the US was putting in place a package of measures to tackle the problem.

"In European terms, we are ahead of the game. Our goal is to make the UK the best and safest place in the world to do e-commerce.

"The gloomy prognosis though is that whatever is done, law enforcement will take a hit over encryption."

"Presumed guilty"

However, opposition politicians expressed concern over the proposed data-gathering powers and a part of the Bill which requires people in possession of encrypted data to provide the encryption key or face prosecution.

The Shadow Home Secretary Anne Widdecombe said: "The crucial point is that people will be presumed guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. That is questionable justice."

Liberal democrat Simon Hughes added that the Bill "offers a relatively light penalty for people who intentionally claim that they cannot find their method of decryption. Clearly, major criminals would rather accept a six-month punishment than a much more severe penalty."

And Conservative MP Ian Bruce said: "It is the most appalling legislation that I have ever seen. It needs an enormous amount of amendment."

'Straw must think again'

Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research and cited as an authority during the debate, said: "On the crucial issue of the burden-of-proof, Jack Straw blew it. The issue was only clarified at the end of the debate after repeated challenges and evasions and FIPR's analysis was entirely confirmed."

UK newspapers also reacted angrily. A leader article in the Financial Times said: "As now drafted, the legislation would enable the authorities to collect huge amounts of data on ordinary citizens.

"Among the most objectionable parts of this Bill are those which require internet service providers to become party to secret surveillance of their customers.

"Internet commerce will only flourish if all parties are confident of security. The idea that internet providers should fill police computers with credit card details, bank statements and commercial contracts may be far from Mr Straw's intention. But this Bill makes it possible. He must think again."

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