In the face of increasing pressure from privacy groups, business groups and Internet service providers (ISPs), the government is backing away from some of the more controversial aspects of its email surveillance bill currently under consideration in the House of Lords.
The Home Office, which proposed and is overseeing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) bill on behalf of the government, will send amendments on the bill to the House of Lords for discussion on Wednesday, according to a spokesman for the Home Office.
The bill, which has already passed the House of Commons, would give the U.K. government sweeping powers to access e-mail and other encrypted Internet communications.
"We've been listening to suggestions being made by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and others, and with the amendments, we are trying to offer reassurances to industry while trying to maintain the balance of the bill," the Home Office spokesman said.
The government spokesman denied that Home Secretary Jack Straw is attempting to avert a revolt in the House of Lords, or that the move is a significant change of tactics for the government. "We've been making amendments to the bill throughout the process, as we do with any bill," he said.
The RIP bill - to get a second reading by the House of Lords at the end of the month - would require ISPs in the U.K. to track all data traffic passing through its computers and route it to the Government Technical Assistance Center (GTAC). The GTAC is being established in MI5’s headquarters.
Under the provisions of the RIP bill, the Home Office can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order.
Furthermore, if a company official is asked to surrender an encryption key to the government, that individual is barred by law from telling anyone - including their employer, be it senior management or security staff - that they have done so. Guidelines for this "tipping off offence," as it is known, could leave an international company completely unaware that what it assumes is secure company data may be under investigation by MI5.