An animal rights activist has been ordered to hand over her encryption keys to the authorities.
Section Three of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) came into force at the start in October 2007, seven years after the original legislation passed through parliament. Intended primarily to deal with terror suspects, it allows police to demand encryption keys or provide a clear text transcript of encrypted text.
Failure to comply can result in up to two years imprisonment for cases not involving national security, or five years for terrorism offences and the like. Orders can be made to turn over data months or even years old.
The contentious measure, introduced after years of consultation, was sold to Parliament as a necessary tool for law enforcement in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.
But an animal rights activist is one of the first people at the receiving end of a notice to give up encryption keys. Her computer was seized by police in May, and she has been given 12 days to hand over a pass-phrase to unlock encrypted data held on the drive - or face the consequences.
"Now apparently they have found some encrypted files on my computer (which was stolen by police thugs in May this year) which they think they have 'reasonable suspicion' to pry into using the excuse of 'preventing or detecting a crime'," she writes.
"Now I have been 'invited' (how nice, will there be tea and biccies?) to reveal my keys to the police so they can look at these files. If I do not comply and tell them to keep their great big hooters out of my private affairs I could be charged under RIPA."
The woman says that any encrypted data put on the PC must have been put there by somebody else.
"Funny thing is PGP and I never got on together I confess that I am far too dense for such a complex (well to me anyway) programme. Therefore in a so-called democracy I am being threatened with prison simply because I cannot access encrypted files on my computer."
She argues that even if she had used encryption she'd be disinclined to hand over her pass phrase. "The police are my enemy, I know that they have given information about me to Huntingdon Life Sciences (as well as hospitalising me)," she writes. "Would I really want them to see and then pass around private communications with my solicitors which could be used against me at a later date in the civil courts, medical records, embarrassing poetry which was never meant to be read by anyone else, soppy love letters or indeed personal financial transactions?"
Indymedia reports that similar demands have been served against other animal rights activists, a point we have not been able to verify.
The woman was issued a notice by the Crown Prosecution Service, and not (as might be expected) the police. According to the code of conduct, the authorities would normally ask a suspect to put the files into intelligible form, though how this would work when a PC is being held by the police is far from clear.
It's unclear if the woman was given an official Section 49 notice or simply "invited" to hand over the data voluntarily as part of a bluff by the authorities.
Richard Clayton, a security researcher at Cambridge University and long-time contributor to UK security policy working groups, said that only the police are authorised to issue Section 49 notices. "What seems to have happened is that the CPS (who couldn't issue a notice anyway) have written asking the person to volunteer their key," he adds.
"Should they refuse this polite request, they are being threatened with the subsequent issuing of a notice, which might or might not require the key to be produced (it might of course just require the putting into an intelligible form of the data)."
Clayton expressed concern that the incident illustrates possible holes in the long-delayed code of practice. "It would clearly be desirable to seek NTAC's views before approaching suspects with requests for keys (rather than requests to put into an intelligible form) - lest the authorities give the impression that they know rather less about the rules (and the operation of encryption systems) than everyone else," he said. ®