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Thursday, 13 July, 2000, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Safeguard over e-mail 'snooping' Bill

The Bill would give security forces unprecedented powers
The government has agreed a new safeguard on its 'snooping Bill' aimed at tackling cyber crime, to try to ease opponents' fears over potential abuse by security forces.

The contentious Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, which will allow security forces to tap e-mails, has faced stiff opposition from e-companies, civil rights campaigners and peers.

But a new government amendment will ensure that Chief Constables must notify the independent Surveillance Commissioner after they have used their power to tap e-mails.

Announced the concession at the Bill's report stage, junior Home Office minister Lord Bassam of Brighton said it offers "a measure of reassurance both to civil libertarians and industry".

Legality questioned

"It will place a duty on them specifically to draw to the Commissioner's attention the fact that they have used the power," he said.

Under the Bill, internet service providers linking computers with the internet would have to install "black boxes" allowing security forces to monitor e-mail messages being sent and received.

They could also force individuals and companies to decode encrypted messages or face prosecution.

The Data Protection Commissioner, Elizabeth France, used the release of her annual report on Wednesday to express concerns about the controversial Bill.

Human rights concern

She said police should have access to encrypted information only with the approval of a judge or another independent authority, and questioned the legality of such widespread snooping.

The powers given to police and security services in the Bill, she said, "could break" European Human Rights laws, which will apply in England and Wales from October.

"It is the view of the Working Party on Police that the routine long-term preservation of data by ISPs for law enforcement purposes would be disproportionate general surveillance of communications," her report said.

She warned that could also make the RIP Bill "incompatible" with European Union directives on data protection.

Straw backs Bill

Peers insisted on Wednesday that an interception system for the internet should be overseen by a statutory body.

They said setting up costs had been underestimated and warned that enormous expense could force e-commerce business away from the UK.

Home Secretary Jack Straw has insisted the new laws do not breach the Convention.

Lord Bassam has promised to prepare the amendment for the Bill's third reading next week.

He said it was vital not to deter law enforcement "in pursuit of some of the more vile crimes that can be perpetuated through computers", such as terrorism and paedophilia.

An Opposition proposal that only the Home Secretary should authorise e-mail surveillance - as with telephone tapping - was defeated by just one vote.

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See also:

12 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
'Snooping' bill protests stepped up
11 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
ISPs RIP warning
06 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Net laws 'still allow snooping'
27 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Ministers amend net snooping legislation
19 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Peers examine email tapping
12 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Criticism of net snooping bill grows
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