Decryption powers come under fire

The plans to let police demand the encryption keys for any data they want to interrogate from a suspect as laid down in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) have been criticised by some academics and cryptographers as flawed and open to abuse. It’s estimated that there are currently 30 cases where encrypted data cannot be viewed by officers.

Aug 24, 2006
By David Howell
Picture: BRC

The plans to let police demand the encryption keys for any data they want to interrogate from a suspect as laid down in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) have been criticised by some academics and cryptographers as flawed and open to abuse. It’s estimated that there are currently 30 cases where encrypted data cannot be viewed by officers.

Part three of the RIPA gives officers the power to demand that any encrypted data is decrypted if certain conditions are met. A code of conduct is also being drawn up that would govern how officers would implement part three of the RIPA.

At a meeting of the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) Simon Watkin of the Home Office stated that part three of the RIPA would only be used when other forms of intelligence against the suspect had been exhausted.

DCI Matt Sarti, a senior officer in the Metropolitan Police`s Child Abuse Investigation Team told the BBC that he knew of cases where suspects had gone free because they could not decrypt the data on the suspect’s computer. He said: “We have to balance the right to private life with the right to private life of victims and the right to life of victims.”

The former head of the FIPR, Casper Bowden also expressed his concern over the implementation of RIPA, stating that “the draft code of conduct has no guidance on weighing privacy against the demands of law enforcement.”

He also criticised the move to make it an offence if a suspect refused to hand over the encryption keys for suspected data. In one case he cited a suspect had claimed that a computer virus has committed the crime that they were accused of. The Earl of Erroll, a cross-bench member of the House of Lords, said there was a real danger of “scope creep” where a new investigative power is used for other purposes other than the one they are intended to tackle. Journalist Duncan Campbell said there were broader questions about how the police investigate high profile cases that threw into question the effectiveness of the decryption powers.

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