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UK unveils proposed crypto law

Key escrow no longer mandatory

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The British Government has released its latest draft proposals for the regulation of strong encryption technologies, in preparation for the upcoming Electronic Commerce Bill. As anticipated (see earlier story), companies seeking to become licensed providers of encryption technology will no longer have to agree to key escrow. The proposals, presented as a consulation paper, seek to build trust in e-commerce transactions by establishing a voluntary licensing scheme for providers of cryptography services and ensuring that digital transactions are as legally binding as those made by other methods of communication. In respect to the latter, the government said it will consider removing obstacles in exisiting legislation that may result in electronic communications not being on a legal par with other media. The licensing scheme separates the provision and certification of digital signatures from the provision of data encryption services and technology. Companies offering either or both of these services would not be required to become licensed, but the government hopes that most will, under consumer pressure. Unlicensed providers' products will still be recognised under the law -- using one will simply require users to prove the products are up to scratch in the case of legal action; confidence in 'official' services can be taken as read. The government was quick to point out that licensed cryptography providers will not be forced to install a key recovery policy. Actually, there's some subtle word-play here. The government says it is consulting with the public on the basis that key escrow will not be mandatory. That doesn't mean key escrow is dead and that it will never be implemented in legislation. Indeed, the consultation document admits that the government will be monitoring its 'no escrow' policy, and it's clear that if it finds that police operations are being hampered by the legislation as it stands (or will stand, once the Bill is enacted), then it will change the rules. For the moment, the government believes the law enforcement and security forces are granted sufficient access to encrypted data under existing legislation. Again, however, it admits that might change. The Department of Trade and Industry is seeking comments from the public and industry on all of its proposals. The deadline for comments is 1 April 1999. The full consultation document, in PDF form, can be viewed here. ®

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