By Trevor Goodchild
It crept up on us by stealth, fittingly for a law that allows the authorities secret access to everyone’s e-mails, internet data and other communications. Hardly anyone had heard of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) legislation until it was already on its way through Parliament.
Yet it is the most draconian invasion of individual privacy ever put on the statute book – and for journalists it is a severe threat to their ability to investigate wrongdoing. Britain will be the only country in the Western world to have such a law when it comes into force in October.
The RIP Act gives a number of authorities – not just the security services and the police – power to see intercepted internet traffic and to seize encryption keys used to protect such traffic and stored computer data. UK Internet service providers will have to install “black boxes” capable of relaying all data passing through their computers to MI5 headquarters.
People who don’t surrender their encryption keys can go to jail for two years -- and they can be ordered not to disclose to anyone else that they’ve been asked for the keys, or even that they’ve been asked to provide decoded text. And when the next generation of mobile phones comes along the law can also be routinely used ,without a warrant, to track the exact whereabouts of people, in effect making everyone with a mobile phone susceptible to electronic tagging.
It’s not surprising that George Orwell’s son, Richard Blair, joined the campaign against the bill along with the NUJ, the Society of Editors and organisations like Amnesty and Liberty in opposing the legislation. An open letter argued that “the bill substantially increases the power of law enforcement and security agencies, and yet provides wholly inadequate measures for authorisation and oversight.” They also believed that “surveillance of website visits will undermine confidence in the Internet as a means of communication.” The business community attacked the bill as a major threat to e-commerce and The Financial Times ,The Times, Telegraph and Guardian weighed in behind them.
Some of the consequences of the law for journalists are already apparent. They won’t be able to tell their sources and contacts they can guarantee confidentiality or protect them if they communicate electronically. Martin Bright’s case would never have reached the courts if the law had already been in operation then. The e-mails to the Observer by the former MI5 agent, David Shayler, would have been intercepted in secret.
The government said the law was needed to allow the authorities “to do their job in a changed technological world,” to deal with criminals, terrorists, paedophiles and pornographers who use e-mails and websites to communicate.
An independent think-tank, The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), brought the dangers of the law to public attention during its passage through Parliament. It argued that the technical thinking behind the legislation was inept, and that criminals could easily circumvent it. But it would be detrimental to privacy, safety and security interests of honest individuals and businesses -- and to the UK’s aspirations in e-commerce. The FT commented: “The danger is that the only criminals caught by the new RIP powers will be stupid and technologically illiterate. Meanwhile, legitimate businesses will suffer.”
All is not lost, though, for investigative journalists. Caspar Bowden, Director of the FIPR, believes they can find newer ways to protect sources. There is, in fact, advice on its website on how it is possible legitimately to get round the new law and avoid surveillance. It’s worth a look at http://www.fipr.org/rip/RIPcountermeasures.htm to see a reasoned case against the law as well as the practical methods.
Caspar Bowden says: “RIP will actually stimulate the commercial development of easy-to-use versions of these abstruse privacy tools. The bad news is that criminals will of course use them as well, so law-enforcement is likely to be worse off.”
Already, a number of UK Internet service providers are considering whether to transfer some services offshore because of the law. One of them is Poptel, one of the UK’s oldest established Internet companies, which also provides e-mail services to the NUJ, and ironically, the Labour Party. A spokesman said: “Poptel is now actively looking at moving at least some of its services overseas in order to guarantee the integrity of clients communications, particularly trade unions, NGO’s and others who may legitimately come into conflict with the government.”