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Telephone and e-mail Intercepts
What's the Difference

The scheme for the regulation of encryption in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP) is horrendously oppressive. Mr Straw, Home Secretary at the time, defended these powers saying that they are merely an extension of what has always happened to telephone intercepts into the new world of e-mail. What he says is simply wrong, and it is indeed very wide of the mark.

How are they different?

First, privacy in e-mails is usually achieved by a process known as public key cryptography (PKC). In PKC, each person has an encryption key. One part is made as public as possible, and the other is kept as private as possible. To send a private message to Alice, Bob uses Alice's public key, to encrypt or scramble the message. The encrypted message is sent to Alice. Alice uses her private key to decrypt the message, and read it.

Who does it Hurt?

If the police wish to read e-mails of a suspect, in this case Bob, it is the private key of the recipient, Alice which must be obtained. It must be noted that Alice's key only has value if the private key is kept absolutely private. This world does not admit of shared secrets. Once her key has been obtained, Alice must prepare and use a new key, possibly at great expense and with embarrassment. It is vital to emphasise that the person whose privacy is threatened is not the suspect, but the innocent third party.

How many?

With a telephone intercept, one or perhaps two warrants might obtain all the material in which the police are interested. These will be the telephones which might be used by the suspect. With PKC, a warrant must be obtained for each separate individual with whom the suspect corresponds. A suspect may have perfectly innocent correspondence with many people, but it is the privacy of each of those many people which must be invaded by the obtaining of the warrant. With a telephone intercept one warrant may be required, with PKC a hundred may be required.

How far does the hurt extend?

When a telephone call is intercepted, the privacy of the two parties to this conversation is interrupted, but no more.

The innocent users of PKC, in this case Alice, may also use her private key to protect details of her bank accounts. She may use it also to protect anything which, in this digital world, she wishes to keep protected. The key may be used to guarantee her identity when in case she comes to carry out a house purchase, it may be used to sign cheques or deeds. In addition, other people who correspond with Alice, Bob 2 and Bob 3, again may be perfectly innocent, will find that their confidential communications with Alice have also been compromised.

Though this is a terrible threat to Alice's general life and well being. Does the proposed Act apologise to her and seek to protect her interests ?

First it sets out to make her a criminal if she cannot, for example remember her password. It can also make her criminal if she tells any of the people with whom she deals that her private key has been compromised. Can she claim compensation? Yes, but the system proposed is truly awful. It would do credit to the very worst of ancient communist regimes in its secrecy, bias, and inadequacy.

The bill seeks to turn those who wish to offer others private communication into criminals. It is wholly wrong and there is no proper resemblance to the schemes for interception of telephone calls.

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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 218 18 October 2013