The UK government's stanch on Web privacy and information access got a little more curious last week - and a whole lot more contradictory for the world of enterprise computing. As demanded by an indignant parliamentary review panel, the government did officially drop its plan to include in its forthcoming Ecommerce bill the requirement of "key escrow". The system would force companies to lodge encryption keys with vaguely defined "third parties", supposedly for law enforcement access. The escrow approach turned out to have been hatched by US intelligence agencies, for purposes of industrial espionage via the Net, an EU report found.
Moreover, the government's statement recognised that "key escrow as a requirement of licencing would not deliver to law enforcement agencies even a reasonable amount of assured access to secured communications".
That's only what businesses and free-speech activists, and police, had been saying for months.
But to replace key escrow, the Trade and Industry Department is seeking a hacking centre within the Home Office to access secured communications.
This would presumably be in addition to existing intelligence agencies that have been getting their cyberfingernails filthy for decades. Even stranger, another new provision would compel an encryption key holder to prove he no longer had it, if he refused to yield it to police. Ever try proving a negative?
Meanwhile, another arm of the Home Office published draft free-information legislation that falls a fair distance short of that label. Jack Straw's proposals seek to reassure business by barring release of commercial information provided in confidence within public bodies. But they would also bar release of information about how government policy was developed - a loophole that bureaucrats could jump through by claiming that release would "prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs". If you're bidding for a government IT contract, you just might want to know more than what some anonymous civil servant wants to disclose about the competition's past and present performance.
Denial of information could be appealed - but a fruitless move given that under these proposals, the government has the final word on disclosing information. Ever read "Catch-22"?
What these tangents and bits add up to is a schizoid policy of assailing encrypted individual privacy even while screwing in more secrecy armour in the public sphere.
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