Police state gets closer
BY DANNY PENMAN
this first appeared in the Daily Express 23/9/99 13th Aug 1999
Welcome to the biggest single assault on our rights in 50 years.... The new Electronic Communications Bill aims to - in effect - give the police the power to issue their own warrants and issue gagging orders. In court, suspects will be assumed "guilty until proven innocent" Please read on.......
Oh yes, and the clauses are written in impenetrable language and hidden deep inside the monumental Bill.....
'When the Internet first erupted into the mainstream a few years ago, it was hailed as one of the greatest liberating forces of all time. Dewy-eyed commentators claimed it would be as important as the printing press. People would be free - wherever they lived in the world - to say what they thought, whenever they liked. We would all become the online press barons for an emerging global village.
Along with the freedom of the Internet came unparalleled business opportunities. Britain, which largely missed out on the new industries of the late twentieth century, could be a leader in the twenty first. Britain's greatest strengths - the media, software, finance and international trade - could all be welded together to establish the country as the dominant commercial centre for the twenty first century.
But now the Government is in the process of destroying these dreams so that the police and secret services can keep a closer watch on all of us. Buried deep inside the draft Electronic Communications Bill, which is designed to prepare Britain for a future based on electronic commerce, are a series of clauses that many experts say are the biggest single assault on our rights in fifty years.
If the Bill is passed, the police and secret services will be free to tap people's emails with virtually no judicial oversight. They will be able to - in effect - write their own warrants and search home computers for anything interesting or useful. If, for example, you have encrypted data or email on your computer, then the police will have the right to demand the password unlocking them. If you refuse, or have forgotten it (and who hasn't forgotten a password or bank PIN number!) then you face two years in jail. To be imprisoned, the police have to do nothing. It is up to you to prove your innocence - reversing the usual 'innocent until proven guilty' principle of law.
The police will also be able to issue gagging orders - preventing you from telling a soul that your home has been raided. Again, there is virtually no judicial oversight. If you do let on, then you face five years in jail. This gagging order also extends to any complaint which you may make about abuses of power by the police or security services. If you do have a complaint, then your concerns will be heard by a secret tribunal - sitting without a jury - and the evidence can be submitted behind your back. Cross-examination, and therefore a fair defence, will be impossible.
Nor are the new powers limited to suspected criminals: they apply to all of us. The police will be allowed to raid the homes and workplaces of a suspects' friends, family and business associates. If they are unable to co-operate and prove their innocence, then prison beckons. Any specific complaint about the police will be dealt with by a secret tribunal. Gagging orders could well be used to stifle any unwelcome press attention.
The new powers will dovetail nicely with the Echelon Project, which scoops-up and analyses every satellite borne e-mail, fax and telephone conversation in Europe. Run jointly by the US and British security forces, Echelon has become so omnipresent that it has begun to rattle the European Parliament's civil liberties committee. It fears that the Echelon Project is starting to erode our most basic rights. Civil liberties groups fear that Echelon could be used to identify people sending coded (or encrypted) emails. The new police powers would then be used to investigate these people further. In effect, they claim, it could be a building block for a police state.
It could be argued that anyone sending encrypted emails was up to no good and that the police should keep an eye on them. It is no different, it could be argued, than the police taking an interest in someone wandering the dark alleys of Brixton wearing a balaclava.
But with the Internet, things are different. Business routinely uses encryption to protect its secrets and commercial transactions. If you have ever bought anything over the Internet, the chances are, your credit card details were encrypted too. The trouble is, once encrypted, the blueprints for an atom bomb are indistinguishable from an online order for War and Peace through Amazon.com.
These worries have set alarm bells ringing across British industry. Unwittingly, the companies at the forefront of Britain's e-commerce revolution could find themselves the focus of a major criminal investigation with no way of defending themselves. They could be forced to reveal commercial secrets to people they may not trust. As a consequence, many are threatening to site their companies offshore. Why risk their money and liberty when they can just as easily serve the British market from Ireland, America or New Zealand?
Not only do the proposed powers risk killing off a vibrant part of the economy, as far as serious crime is concerned, they will be stillborn. Already, anonymous military-grade encryption is available through Hushmail. Based overseas, this allows anybody to send and receive scrambled email through any cybercafe in the world. It's also relatively easy to hide encrypted information inside innocuous looking pictures and data.
Today, Patricia Hewitt, a minister at the DTI, will try to reassure Britain's e-commerce industry at the Scrambling for Safety conference. She faces a tough task. Undoubtedly, she will argue that the state has a duty to protect us all from terrorists, paedophiles and drug runners. Few will argue with that. But is it really worth killing off Britain's e-commerce revolution and eroding our civil rights for laws that serious criminals will easily avoid?'
(See also: highest ever UK phone-tapping figures)