Industry groups and encryption users will today get their first chance to grill UK government ministers and Home Office officials in public about the controversial communications snooping bill.
At the Scrambling for Safety 2000 Conference in London, delegates will meet government officials, including UK Minister of State Charles Clarke, to discuss the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill.
Critics argue that the Bill will criminalise the use of computers, turn ISPs into surveillance centres and harm ecommerce in the UK.
Ahead of the meeting, details emerged from human rights organisation, Justice, that police powers to unscramble encoded email, contained in the Bill, are likely to breach the European Convention on Human Rights.
Part three of the Bill - previously in the Electronic Communications Bill - allows the police to serve written notice to demand either that a communication be decrypted or the private encryption key be handed over.
According to an opinion document from two leading lawyers, the government has wrongly opted for the widest police powers, enabling open-ended interception of encrypted material. This puts measures in the Bill in contravention with Article 8 of the European Convention, which covers respect for privacy.
Other potential human rights breeches have been highlighted by an opinion document by the Foundation for Information Policy Research and Liberty.
Chief among these are that the presumption of innocence is violated. Under the proposed legislation, failure to comply with a decryption notice will be a criminal offence unless a person can prove that they do not have the key, or do not have access to it. This means that the burden of proof is reversed, according to the opinion document.
Caspar Bowden, director of think tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research, said: "The question of the reversal of the burden of proof has been festering for eight months. It is now time for the Home Office to give a reasoned explanation for how an innocent person who has forgotten their key can be expected to prove this on a balance of probabilities".
The potential for abuse exists because not all decryption notices have to be authorised by a judge and can be applied to less serious offences, according to the opinion document. Criticism has also been levelled at the safeguards on the holding of the decryption key and any material obtained. Fears that the Bill infringes on the right not to self-incriminate were also raised.
The document concludes: "For anyone using encryption, in order to avoid unjustified suspicion and possible wrongful conviction, it would have to be good practice to use steganographic [information hiding] file systems and not to admit to ever having had a key rather than be helpful and co-operative."
Madeleine Colvin, Legal Policy Director at Justice, said: "As these are significant breaches, we expect the Home Office to engage in open debate on how far this Bill will fail to be human rights-compliant in practice, rather than merely asserting that it is."
vnunet.com will have a full report from the Scrambling for Safety 2000 Conference on Thursday.
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