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UK to drop key escrow from crypto rules

But only maybe -- opponents have to find an alternative first

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The British government has dropped plans to build key escrow into its encryption policy -- a day before the Department of Trade and Industry releases the second public consulation document seeking opinion on how the UK's crypto policy should be formulated. However, the move may not remove the rights of the police and other agencies to access encrypted material. Instead, opponents to key escrow may have to come up with an alternative. The first set of DTI encryption policy proposals were made public back in 1997, under the previous, Conservative government. The suggested policy centred on a scheme whereby the DTI licensed Trusted Third-Parties (TTPs) to issues strong encryption technology to businesses, organisations and individuals. Each TTP would be responsible for maintaining and certifying users' encryption keys. However, a fundamental part of that proposal was key escrow -- making users' keys available to law enforcement and security forces, allowing those organisations to access encrypted data. The key escrow arrangement has since been widely attacked by business groups and civil rights organisations. This week the House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, which is currently investigating the UK e-commerce arena and the role of strong encryption within it, heard evidence from Post Office board member Jerry Cope that ill-considered legislation -- law that required key escrow and/or limited the strength of encryption software -- would limit the UK's chances of become a world centre for e-commerce (see UK Post Office confirms crypto service roll-out). That outcome is the exact opposite of the UK administration's e-commere policy, outlined last year by the then Trade and Industry Secretary, Peter Mandelson, who said it was the government's intention to make the UK "the best place in the world to do business electronically". And yesteday Prime Minister Tony Blair backed up that claim by telling representatives of the IT and telecoms industries that key escrow would no longer be obligatory, according to sources close to the meeting. However, Blair clearly told them that they will need to come up with an alternative. Taking a tough stance on law and order issues is also a well-stated government policy, so the government is unlikely to willingly sign away law enforcement agencies' rights to intercept and access encrypted data while fighting crime. Sources suggest the IT and telecoms industries have three weeks to suggest an alternative to key escrow -- or it willbe put back into the proposed regulations. ®

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