UK Police Can Now Demand Encryption Keys
Under a new law that went into effect this month, it is now a crime to refuse to turn a decryption key over to the police.
I’m not sure of the point of this law. Certainly it will have the effect of spooking businesses, who now have to worry about the police demanding their encryption keys and exposing their entire operations.
Cambridge University security expert Richard Clayton said in May of 2006 that such laws would only encourage businesses to house their cryptography operations out of the reach of UK investigators, potentially harming the country’s economy. “The controversy here [lies in] seizing keys, not in forcing people to decrypt. The power to seize encryption keys is spooking big business,” Clayton said.
“The notion that international bankers would be wary of bringing master keys into UK if they could be seized as part of legitimate police operations, or by a corrupt chief constable, has quite a lot of traction,” he added. “With the appropriate paperwork, keys can be seized. If you’re an international banker you’ll plonk your headquarters in Zurich.”
But if you’re guilty of something that can only be proved by the decrypted data, you might be better off refusing to divulge the key (and facing the maximum five-year penalty the statue provides) instead of being convicted for whatever more serious charge you’re actually guilty of.
I think this is just another skirmish in the “war on encryption” that has been going on for the past fifteen years. (Anyone remember the Clipper chip?) The police have long maintained that encryption is an insurmountable obstacle to law and order:
The Home Office has steadfastly proclaimed that the law is aimed at catching terrorists, pedophiles, and hardened criminals—all parties which the UK government contents are rather adept at using encryption to cover up their activities.
We heard the same thing from FBI Director Louis Freeh in 1993. I called them “The Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse“—terrorists, drug dealers, kidnappers, and child pornographers—and have been used to justify all sorts of new police powers.
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