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Provisions in the UK's Export Control Bill could land cryptographic researchers in jail.

That's the warning of Ross Anderson, a lecturer of the University of Cambridge's Computer Laboratory, who warns that the bill, currently before the House of Lords, attacks innovation and academic freedoms. Penalties for breaching 'transfer controls' on sensitive technologies under the bill would carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, he argues.

Anderson said the bill, which extends export controls on armaments from physical goods to intangibles such as software, is so "widely drawn" that it would "give ministers the power to review and suppress any scientific papers prior to publication".

"In the past, scientific discoveries could be classified if the scientist applied for a patent, but not if the results were simply published; this is seen by Whitehall not as a fundamental freedom, but as a loophole that needs to be quietly closed," he said.

In the late 1990s, Anderson worked with scientists in Norway and Israel to develop a candidate encryption algorithm (called Serpent) which was a finalist in the Advanced Encryption Standard competition, run by the US government. In the future such exchanges would involve a licence from the Department of Trade and Industry, which Anderson reckons would impose restrictions that would frustrate collaboration and impose conditions that would prevent him doing consultancy work.

These "startling new powers of censorship" are far more strict than US regulations - certainly they would prevent any future British Phil Zimmermann - and affect more than just cryptography, but development work in high tech companies across the UK. Britons firms will have to labour under an onerous licensing regime, placing them at a commercial disadvantage to US free of such restrictions, he argues.

Anderson, a long-standing and outspoken critic of UK crypto policy, argues that the credibility of the UK exports regime could be threatened by the bill, and has called for a campaign against it.

We put Anderson's criticisms to the Department of Trade and Industry but no one was available for comment by press time.

The bill goes to the House of Lords committee on March 4, prior to its return to the Commons for a third reading. Amendments to the bill have been put forward in the Lords but it's unclear whether these will be accepted by the government or when the bill might become law. ®

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