Beware: Big Brother has an eye on your e-mail

GOING ON holiday? You might judge it sensible to leave the keys to your house with a friend - just as a precaution against fire, flood or other acts of a capricious God. But what if that friend was not what they seemed?

What if instead you learnt that your friend could give the keys to the local police to allow them to come into that house and search it; and further that you would never be the wiser, for your "friend" would be instructed not to tell you.

Bizarre though it sounds, this metaphor describes the proposals expected in a government Bill on electronic commerce, due to be published in the next few days by the Department of Trade and Industry. And British businesses are not pleased. Just when they thought they were getting consumers excited about the Internet, and were themselves discovering the possibilities of cutting costs by trading around the world over the electronic network, they have found that the Government wants, like Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984, to be able to know what they are doing at any time.

Some of the reactions to the proposal are not polite. "Idiotic" is one phrase that has been used, though publicly most are more restrained. Peter Dare, who oversees IBM's development of electronic trading systems in Europe, points out: "The Government can only regulate one country, but electronic commerce is global. You need to solve the problem at a global level."

The problem is that there is a conflict between what governments want to observe in e-commerce, and what consumers and business want to let them see.

Even home computers canencrypt messages. Consumers like that: it gives them confidence that their credit card details are not being redistributed over the Internet when they buy a bunch of roses. For business, it means not having to worry that rivals will read your e-mail.

But to a policeman intercepting an e-mail stream, does an encrypted message signal a paranoid newbie, or a paedophile? Are uncrackable e-mails between a business and a bank legitimate, or money-laundering? On Monday Paul Higdon, of Interpol's Criminal Intelligence directorate, told a conference in London that criminals' use of technology "has outpaced us". What the police want is a short cut; a quick way to crack those codes. It won't come from computers, so it must be created in law.

Battle lines are drawn, and will become clearer when the delayed draft Bill on Electronic Commerce is published, possibly later this week. The Home Office is expected to have won its fight for controls on encryption, particularly to have copies of the keys used for coding messages lodged with a licensed third party, a system known as "key escrow". With a warrant, the Government could accesskeys and decode messages.

But beyond government, the perception is that that will harm, not help, the development of an international business in which the UK is already lagging. Peter Mandelson's departure from the DTI last December dismayed many in the electronics and computing industry: they felt that he, at least, understood the importance of having the least possible regulation on electronic business. Without him to subdue the Home Office in Cabinet, key escrow looks inevitable.

The US government has already proposed and abandoned key escrow. In 1993 the Bush administration suggested anybody wanting to encrypt their phone calls would have to buy phones fitted with a "Clipper chip", which would give almost uncrackable encryption - but offer government agencies a "back door" for listening-in.

However, Clipper was shown to have myriad flaws, and besides, how many criminal masterminds would buy a phone knowing the government could tap it? Commercially, it bombed.

Thus proposals for key escrow on data communications by UK business has drawn weary sighs from those with any knowledge of history. That does not seem to include the Government. "This needs a balance between the ease of access, under lawful control, and the protection of the consumer," said Peter Bonfield, chief executive of BT, in testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee on Trade and Industry last month. "I don't think this is a technology argument."

In other words, catching fraud is not about catching criminals' messages, it is about catching criminals.

Keith Chapple, managing director of the UK arm of chipmakers Intel, added: "The French were keen to have key escrow. But they realised that it won't help law enforcement ... because one thing you are sure of is that criminals don't obey the law."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there