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Monday, 8 May, 2000, 15:05 GMT 16:05 UK
Computer crime plan 'bad for business'

Crime and punishment: But how to handle the net?
Controversial proposals to control the interception of e-mail and other communications return to the UK Parliament on Monday, having previously been described appalling and objectionable.

The government says legal changes are needed to continue the fight against crime in the internet age, given that encryption codes are freely available to make secret electronic messages uncrackable.

But the Home Office's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill has come under fierce criticism, from opposition politicians and groups outside parliament.

They have two main fears. The first is a potential financial burden on business if internet service providers (ISPs) are forced to provide access to data for the government. The second is a "reverse burden of proof", meaning people unable to produce the key to encrypted information would be guilty of a crime.

No concessions

The government says the bill clearly covers questions of who can use the interception powers, for what purpose and how the power is regulated.

Observers believe they are unlikely to shift their position on the key objections, which could lead to the Conservative opposition abstaining on the whole bill. This would go against their traditional support for measures which strengthen crime-fighting powers.

UK intelligence agency MI5 could access any email
The human and civil rights group Liberty welcomes parts of the bill, but believes: "The bill will require some amendment in order to comply with international human rights standards. For example, the proposed powers to recover encryption keys risk reversing the burden of proof."

This has been the objection most vehemently voiced. Many businesses and individuals wish to send sensitive information over the internet. This can be done by encrypting the message, using one of many free programs available.

However, criminals can do the same and the government proposes to make it illegal to fail to hand over the key to any encrypted information. The problem, according to the critics, is that the individual has to prove he no longer has the key, if it has been lost or forgotten.

To spy or not to spy

Prominent critic Caspar Bowden, Director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, told the BBC: "Either we can go down the path of trying to set up total surveillance apparatus or we accept that changes in technology have fundamentally limited the ability of governments to do this.

"The latter choice means proceeding on the basis of very specialised forensic investigation teams that target the most serious criminals with the best techniques."

The other main point of contention is over the potential cost to business of the proposed legislation, which some say will make people pay for the provision of the government's ability to intercept their e-mail.

Keith Mitchell, who runs the London Internet Exchange told the BBC: "I think there are going to be significant burdens on ISPs in terms of using our skilled engineers as moonlighting government spooks."

He believes that current proposals requiring the government to be given access to data will cost large ISPs at least 250,000 a year. He said that cost has to be passed to consumers, making internet access more expensive.

An industry think tank told the BBC that such costs could drive businesses out of Britain: "There is a risk that e-commerce could be damaged - it would be very easy for all kinds of e-business to migrate to Ireland or France."

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07 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Computer crime plans attacked
13 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
China backs down over encryption codes
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Encryption for all
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