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Sunday, August 18, 2002
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act

Here, on Airstrip One, new legislation now appears to govern the sending of email messages. There have been many articles in the press and comments on the radio but, now that the bill is law, comment about the instrument has virtually ceased. One problem has been that criticisms have been met with responses such as that given by ministers and their representatives: ‘Don’t worry your pretty little selves – this bill is for your protection. It is not a snooper’s charter.’ Added to which, there are reams of explanatory notes. Interpreting the Act is a lawyer's beanfeast.

I have not read the thing in its entirety. For those of a more determined disposition, you can read the full text here. Alternatively, the index, with its convenient headings, will take you to appropriate parts of the Act to save you the trouble of ploughing through it.

The Act deals with strong encryption (coding) of email messages. There is a view afoot that terrorists and criminals use this form of communication to keep their nefarious work secret. Strong encryption allows users to communicate in such a way that their codes cannot be broken – it is necessary to have the key in order to decrypt a message. The thinking behind the Act is that crooks and terrorists will have to give up their keys to the spooks or ‘other competent authority’, if so asked. The Act governs the power to demand the key.

The spooks will, of necessity, have to work on the assumption that anything encrypted relates to an offence. In other words, if you use strong encryption, you are presumed to be up to no good. ‘The forces of law and order,’ can always justify their actions after the event and no form of regulation can stop them. ‘National security’ has, since time immemorial, been used to justify all sorts of snooping.

The nastiness doesn’t stop there: once you have received a notice requiring you to hand over your encryption key, it is an offence to reveal that you have been asked for this key. In case you think this is a joke, here is the opening text of paragraph 54 of the Act:
(1) This section applies where a section 49 notice contains a provision requiring-
(a) the person to whom the notice is given, and
(b) every other person who becomes aware of it or of its contents,
to keep secret the giving of the notice, its contents and the things done in pursuance of it.

Readers abroad will, no doubt, be laughing their heads off; those in the UK should be suitably shaken. It appears that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act will run foul of European Human Rights legislation but it must do so quickly and/or it must be shown to be idiotic.

Doubtless, under such a catch-all act as RIP, it is an offence to encourage others not to comply with its provisions. Therefore, I can only raise the possibility that UK academics should discuss the subject with their opposite numbers while away on foreign junkets. If you jointly decide to communicate in future using strong encryption, or some other secure method, you would be doing the nation a favour. And when you are asked for your key, any form of improvisation would be appropriate. The gesture given by English archers to their French opponents, indicating that their longbow fingers were still intact, is offered as a good example.

Other measures can be taken - using an offshore mail server is one spanner to throw. There are other methods of ensuring secure communication. Here is a site with some information about it.

Bad law needs to be exposed quickly. Push this nonsense to its limits. With a bit of luck, we shall be able to replace the RIP (suitable name, eh?) Act with one based on the Irish version. In the Republic of Ireland, it is an offence to intercept email messages. Full stop.

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