ad info
   personal technology

 custom news
 Headline News brief
 daily almanac
 CNN networks
 CNN programs
 on-air transcripts
 news quiz

CNN Websites
 video on demand
 video archive
 audio on demand
 news email services
 free email accounts
 desktop headlines

 message boards




Industry Standard

Use encryption, go to jail?

July 29, 1999
Web posted at: 11:11 a.m. EDT (1511 GMT)

by Douglas F. Gray
encryption laws

   Internet regulation

   Sign up for the Computer Connection email service

   For more computing stories

Would a similar law pass in the U.S.?

Yes No
View Results


LONDON (IDG) -- Encryption users could face up to two years in prison for refusing to hand over the keys to their code, according to Britain's proposed Electronic Communications Bill.

The bill is causing concern among privacy advocates and opposition parties, who say the bill gives law enforcement wide-reaching power over private Internet communications.

Most aggravating, the bill calls for a possible two years in prison for anyone refusing to turn over the encryption key or the message in plain text to law-enforcement officials. It also calls for a five-year prison term for tipping off senders that they are being investigated, according to Caspar Bowden, director of the London-based Foundation for Information Policy Research.

Even discussing an investigation in public, such as complaining about alleged abuses of law enforcement to the media, may also be punishable by imprisonment, said Bowden. "Let's say that someone under investigation sends me a message with encryption that can only be decrypted by the receiver. The authorities come to me and tell me that they are investigating someone, but won't tell me who, so they ask for all my private keys," Bowden said. Refusing this request from the authorities could get him two years in prison, said Bowden.

In such a case, the authorities would have all of Bowden's private keys, enabling law enforcement to read all encrypted correspondence that was sent to him. Bowden would then have no choice, he said, because by informing anyone of this, and asking them to change their key, he would break the "tipping off" clause of the bill and in turn and face five years imprisonment.
  Industry Standard home page
  Industry Standard email newsletters
  Industry Standard daily Media Grok
  Industry Standard financial news
 Reviews & in-depth info at's personal news page
  Year 2000 World
  Questions about computers? Let's editors help you
  Subscribe to's free daily newsletter for computer industry cognoscenti
  Search in 12 languages
 News Radio
 * Fusion audio primers
 * Computerworld Minute

"I can't complain to the newspaper, otherwise it's five years in jail. All I can do is go to a secret tribunal," Bowden said. He's not joking: The tribunal is five judges, only two have to participate, and only one has to lay the groundwork, he added.

Bowden feels that the entire bill needs to be re-examined by the U.K.'s Department of Trade and Industry. "We would like to see the Electronic Communication Bill be about e-commerce, which is what they said; the law-enforcement section doesn't even belong in it," he added.

There is also another method of hiding messages, called steganography. It's not really clear to commentators such as Bowden whether or not steganography is covered by the bill. With steganography, users can "sprinkle an encrypted message" into a photographic format, such as JPEG, or a music format such as MP3, both of which are very popular online. In actuality, the message does not necessarily need to be encrypted, just concealed within the file, according to Bowden.

Although the bill does not mention technologies such as steganography, Bowden speculated that the authorities could enforce regulations in those cases by proving that there was a reason to search, such as the existence of a steganography program on the suspect's computer.

Douglas F. Gray writes for the IDG News Service.

Internet regulation

Congress targets exported encryption tech
July 26, 1999
U.S. committees approve encryption bill
June 25, 1999
Study: Many nations moving away from crypto controls
June 11, 1999

U.K. plays catch-up on electronic law
(The Industry Standard)
Tories block U.K. e-commerce legislation
Crypto expert: Most encryption software is insecure
Thumbs-up on encryption, other Net bills
(The Industry Standard)
5 ways government policy will impact corporate IT
Looser U.S. rules won't cool crypto debate in 1999
(The Industry Standard)
Net groups slam encryption changes
(The Industry Standard)
Year 2000 World
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.

Foundation for Information Policy Research
U.K. Department of Trade and Industry
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
Enter keyword(s)   go    help

Back to the top   © 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.