The RIP Bill

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill was drafted to update the powers available to British law enforcement agencies for the internet age. It covers interception of email and disclosure of encryption keys. It will become law before the end of 2000.

It has many flaws. Firstly, unlike phone tapping, no judge's warrant is needed. Your email can be intercepted by tax officials, probation officers, customs officers, police and other civil bodies at any time.

However, you'll never know about this. While internet providers will be required to implement parts of the infrastructure, it's a crime for them to reveal their knowledge. At any time in the future. The penalty for "tipping off" is up to five years imprisonment. Presumably senility is still a valid defence.

Also unlike phone taps, evidence thus obtained is not admissible in court, despite the fact that email is. So while this bill is being proposed to fight crime, it will never lead to any arrests.

It's also interesting to see the measures the government is taking to close the bill's loopholes. (None.) Sinn Fein, Greenpeace, and the British National Party, all regular targets of the security services, will continue to use servers based in the US. They are immune to this bill.

Meanwhile, British companies are being asked to write the government a blank cheque. To quote the bill, "the Secretary of State may, if he thinks fit, make such payments out of money provided by Parliament" to anyone providing communications services to help in compliance with this bill. In other words the Secretary of State may, if he thinks fit, make no payment at all to companies required to buy expensive black boxes, install them with their equipment, pay for them to be connected to their network, and allow government access 24 hours a day. While the government has refused to discuss implementation costs, independent assessments have put costs in the region of several hundred thousand pounds per installation.

But that's OK because not everyone will have to install one.

We raised these concerns with our MP, who claimed we weren't his constituents. We showed him a map. By this time the bill had reached its last reading in parliament.

Dear Mr Brooke,

I assume that you were one of the 30 MP's who attended Commons debate on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill on Friday evening. Thank you for taking the trouble. A cynic might say that the phrase "open government" was coined not for allowing the public into parliament, but for letting members out. From press reports it appears the standard of debate was particularly poor. We certainly do regret not having involved ourselves earlier in this.

There is little we can now do at this stage. However I would like to share this thought with you.

Sinn Fein, for example, will continue to use mailservers in the USA, and will continue to use strong encryption outside the reach of our own internal security services. Other groups may decide to set up private mailservers, which will be exempted by this bill. Police will still need to mount raids to intercept this traffic. Meanwhile, small business such as ours will bear a burden yet to be announced by the Secretary of State. The bill will most likely not encourage trust in us by our foreign trading partners.

I can only hope parliament's other 11 bills passed on Friday are more successful in fulfilling their aims.


Georgina Reeves
Director, Ripserve Ltd.