Monday, 8 October 2007

Can you keep a secret?

An interesting article by Henry Porter in Sunday's Observer. He writes about how, hidden in all the froth of electioneering and policy stealing, the government has quietly introduced the extended Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Alongside its ID Card plans and CCTV surveillance, this act increases the government's Stasi-like control over our privacy. Under the act, the police and security services can tap any British communication channel, including post, telephone lines and internet accounts; the phone companies and ISPs are required to keep track of every electronic move we make.

So, can you still keep a secret? Well, you can, but, if you insist, you may have to be prepared to spend some time in prison for it. Part III of the Act, in force from the 1st October, gives the Government and its agents the power to demand that you hand over the keys to any encrypted data they find on your computer. Refusal to comply can result in a prison sentence of up to 5 years.

On my computer there is an encrypted folder where I keep all sorts of stuff - none of it illegal - such as my internet banking details. This is encrypted so securely that it is, in practice, unreadable unless you know the key I used when creating it. This key isn't written down anywhere; it only exists in my head. Or, perhaps more accurately, it exists only as a memory in my brain, and can only be accessed by a thought from that brain. Under RIPA Part III, it becomes an offence for me to have such a memory and not to disclose it when ordered under what is called a Section 49 Notice. The thought police have arrived.

Of course, if the disclosure of such a key were to prevent a terrorist incident, it wouldn't seem such a bad piece of lesligation, and this, along with the usual "nothing to hide, nothing to fear", is how the Government justifies it. However, the same law can be applied in a range of suspected crimes, including financial ones, although the maximum sentence for non-terrorism related thought-withholding offences is only 2 years.

It's all very worrying. As Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti says: "This underlines the uncomfortable fact that the British public are the most spied upon people in the Western world."