Concern Over U.K. E-Mail Surveillance Bill Grows

LONDON (06/12/2000) - A surveillance bill that would give the U.K. government sweeping powers to access e-mail and other encrypted Internet communications is coming under increasing criticism from companies and organizations as the bill heads for a vote in the House of Lords this week.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) bill, which has already been passed by the House of Commons and, unless sent back to the lower house, will become law on October 5, would, among other things, require ISPs (Internet service providers) in the U.K. to track all data traffic passing through its computers and route it to the Government Technical Assistance Center (GTAC).

The GTAC is being established in the London headquarters of the U.K. secret service office, MI5 -- the equivalent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the U.S.

Also, under the provisions of the RIP bill, the U.K. government -- specifically the Home Office and its head, the Home Secretary -- can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order.

"It is an absolute disgrace," said Tony Benn, a member of Parliament and former minister for technology in the 1970s. "You can't bug anyone's telephone without a warrant, which is express written consent personally signed by the Home Secretary. Why should you have less protection over the Internet?"

Civil liberty organizations are worried that the government's e-mail interception bill would grossly encroach on privacy, while businesses fear the law will force e-commerce companies to move operations to other countries, such as Ireland, which do not have such restrictions.

"There is a real danger that the competitive disadvantage caused by this measure will frustrate the government's ambition of making the U.K. the best place to trade electronically by 2002," wrote Chris Humphries, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, in a letter to the Home Secretary Jack Straw.

In the letter, sent on June 5 and made available to the public, Humphries made it clear that the members of the British Chambers of Commerce "fully understand the need for law enforcement agencies to have access to decrypted electronic data." But Humphries raised questions of "potential civil liability of a company" and "the possibility that the government could be seen to be acting as a shadow director by controlling an employee over the directors of the company."

The Institute of Directors, a worldwide, nonpolitical organization for company directors, also voiced its concerns over the RIP bill on Monday, calling for amendments to be made by the House of Lords before it passes the bill.

Individuals in multinational businesses may run afoul of the RIP law with no legal recourse to protect themselves, the Institute of Directors said in a statement released on Monday.

"If an employee is served with an order to release highly sensitive encryption keys, they are likely also to be served with a 'gagging order' preventing them from informing others in the company (such as senior management or security staff) that the integrity of their encryption systems has been potentially compromised. The employee is protected in this country against the consequences of that action. This protection does not extend outside the U.K. to other jurisdictions such as that of the parent company," said Jim Norton, the head of e-business policy for the Institute of Directors.

Even individual companies are coming out in opposition to the RIP as it currently stands, including the U.K.-based IT security company Biodata Information Technology Ltd. "We are calling for further debate on certain issues within the bill," said Furqan Syed, spokesman for Biodata. "We would like to understand more about the technical details of the mechanisms that will be used by the Government to monitor Internet traffic."

The RIP bill, which is now in Committee in the House of Lords, already has 229 pending amendments which pundits feel have little chance of passing.

"It's a good question why this bill passed through the Commons so easily, but perhaps lawyers in the House of Lords can cause enough anxiety for them to send it back to the Commons for better consideration," Tony Benn said.

Biodata Information Technology, in Basingstoke, England, can be contacted at +44-208-337-7432 or at http://www.biodata.com/. Institute of Directors, in London, can be contacted at +44-207-451-3108 or at http://www.iod.co.uk/. The British Chambers of Commerce, in London, can be contacted at +44-207-565-2000 or at http://www.britishchambers.org.uk/.

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