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Monday, 27 April, 1998, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Encryption proposals revealed
The security services would be able to unlock e-mail if the new legislation goes through
The security services would be able to unlock e-mail if the new legislation goes through
Trying to balance the concerns of law enforcement agencies and civil liberties groups, the British Government has unveiled long-awaited proposals on how it wants to tackle encrypted information passed over the Internet.

The Department of Trade and Industry announced on Monday that legislation would be introduced allowing the authorities "to gain legal access, under a properly authorised warrant, and on a case by case basis, to encryption keys or other information protecting the secrecy of stored or transmitted information."

The Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, Barbara Roche, said in a written reply to a parliamentary question: "It is not ... in the interests of business or the public for criminals and terrorists to be able to exploit these new technologies to disguise or conceal their activities."

She added: "The purpose of these new powers will be to maintain the effectiveness of the existing legislation designed to protect the public from crime and terrorism."

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, alarmed civil liberties groups in January when he hosted a conference of European Union ministers in Birmingham who appeared to agree that the police and security services should have wide-ranging powers to fight cyber crime by intercepting e-mail and reading confidential documents without being monitored by the courts.

But the proposed legislation suggests a judicial warrant would be needed in each individual case. It follows Labour's pre-election manifesto statement that this should be "in the same way that a warrant is required to search someone's home."

The trade minister's statement did suggest a U-turn on another manifesto commitment, which said: "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."

Ms Roche said that to enable secure electronic commerce, bodies would be licensed to provide or facilitate encryption services. This would be a voluntary scheme and would ensure that minimum standards of quality and service were met, she said.

The minister was referring to the Trusted Third Parties (TTPs) scheme put forward by the previous government whereby users of encryption would lodge the keys to their code with the TTPs. Critics of the plan had feared this would be made compulsory. The proposals suggest otherwise, but still go against the Labour manifesto.

See also:

19 Sep 98 | Sci/Tech
The great encryption debate
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