New laws going into effect today in the United Kingdom make it a crime to refuse to decrypt almost any encrypted data requested by authorities as part of a criminal or terror investigation. Individuals who are believed to have the cryptographic keys necessary for such decryption will face up to 5 years in prison for failing to comply with police or military orders to hand over either the cryptographic keys, or the data in a decrypted form.
Part 3, Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) includes provisions for the decryption requirements, which are applied differently based on the kind of investigation underway. As we reported last year, the five-year imprisonment penalty is reserved for cases involving anti-terrorism efforts. All other failures to comply can be met with a maximum two-year sentence.
The law can only be applied to data residing in the UK, hosted on UK servers, or stored on devices located within the UK. The law does not authorize the UK government to intercept encrypted materials in transit on the Internet via the UK and to attempt to have them decrypted under the auspices of the jail time penalty.
The law has been criticized for the power its gives investigators, which is seen as dangerously broad. Authorities tracking the movement of terrorist funds could demand the encryption keys used by a financial institution, for instance, thereby laying bare that bank’s files on everything from financial transactions to user data.
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.”
The law also allows authorities to compel individuals targeted in such investigation to keep silent about their role in decrypting data. Though this will be handled on a case-by-case basis, it’s another worrisome facet of a law that has been widely criticized for years. While RIPA was originally passed in 2000, the provisions detailing the handover of cryptographic keys and/or the force decryption of protected content has not been tapped by the UK Home Office—the division of the British government which oversees national security, the justice system, immigration, and the police forces of England and Wales. As we reported last year, the Home Office was slowly building its case to activate Part 3, Section 49.
The Home Office has steadfastly proclaimed that the law is aimed at catching terrorists, pedophiles, and hardened criminals—all parties which the UK government contends are rather adept at using encryption to cover up their activities.
Yet the law, in a strange way, almost gives criminals an “out,” in that those caught potentially committing serious crimes may opt to refuse to decrypt incriminating data. A pedophile with a 2GB collection of encrypted kiddie porn may find it easier to do two years in the slammer than expose what he’s been up to.