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Council of Europe drops plans to ban hacking tools

Human rights watchdog told proposals are unworkable

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The Council of Europe has scrapped controversial plans to ban the use of "hacking" tools by IT professionals, after industry groups successfully persuaded it that the proposals were unworkable.

The proposals were contained in a draft of the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime, which is intended to provide a framework to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to collaborate internationally.

The Council of Europe, which includes 41 European countries, was founded as a human rights watchdog in 1949. As such it is influential in developing a continent-wide agreements that standardise member countries' social and legal practices in tackling crime on the Internet.

Original proposals by the council would have made it illegal to distribute tools or discuss techniques that look for weaknesses in the security of systems, for example software used to scan the perimeter of networks for security vulnerabilities. This provoked fierce opposition because it would ban tools used in security audits as well as those used by hackers.

Philip Virgo, secretary general of industry lobby group Eurim, whose members include IT suppliers and heads of security at blue chip firms, said the latest version of the treaty, which is being discussed by a working group in Berlin today, has dropped the idea.

"The original wording has changed markedly so that it now permits the use of tools for security purposes," said Virgo, who added that after many revisions the treaty was reaching its final form.

Virgo added that industry lobbying had shifted the scope of the treaty away from "obsession with surveillance" onto issues like hacking and cyber-vandalism that is of more concern to IT professionals.

He added that users were far more keen to take effective steps against another Love Bug virus, which he compared to putting a concrete block on a railway line, than seeing more surveillance.

However, despite the changes, the treaty continues to attract criticism from European politicians, including Diana Wallis MEP, Liberal Democrat Internet spokesperson in the European Parliament, who argued it could lead to a Europe-wide version of the UK's controversial email snooping powers. ®

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