August 15, 2006 6:47 AM PDT

U.K. police: Let us seize encryption keys

Because British law enforcement officers don't have the authority to seize encryption keys, an increasing number of criminals are able to evade justice, a senior police officer said.

Suspected terrorists, pedophiles and burglars have all walked free because encrypted data couldn't be opened, Detective Chief Inspector Matt Sarti of the Metropolitan Police said Monday during a public meeting in London.

"There are more than 200 PCs sitting in property cupboards which contain encrypted data, for which we have considerable evidence that they contain data that relates to a serious crime," Sarti said. "Not one of those suspects has claimed that the files are business-related, and in many cases, the names of the files indicate that they are important to our investigations."

Earlier this summer, the British government announced that it plans to activate Part 3 of the Regulations of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, which will give the police the power, in some circumstances, to demand an encryption key from a suspect.

Part 3 of the RIP Act has been heavily criticized in the past by some security professionals and academics who believe that it is a dangerous and badly written piece of legislation that cannot be properly implemented.

Sarti was speaking at an open meeting to discuss the Home Office consultation about the draft code of practice for Part 3 of the RIP Act, which will govern how its powers can be used.

The meeting was organized by the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

Casper Bowden, a former director of the FIPR who led the fight against the introduction of the RIP Act several years ago, said during the meeting that Part 3 is flawed because defendants could be prosecuted for simply losing an encryption key.

"The burden of proof is on the suspect to prove that they don't have the key, and if they fail, they go to prison. But if they can give an explanation for not having the key, then the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that they are lying," Bowden said.

Bowden explained that in circumstances when the police suspected someone had encrypted incriminating data, officers could issue an order under Section 49 of the act, ordering the suspect to hand over the key. Failure to do so could lead to a prosecution under Section 53 of the Act.

Richard Clayton, an FIPR trustee and a computer security researcher at the University of Cambridge, said the code of practice also lacks clear powers against officials who were guilty of making "deliberate mistakes" in their use of the RIP Act to obtain private data. Clayton also argued that businesses may take their encryption keys out of U.K. jurisdiction so that they can't be seized.

But Simon Watkin of the Home Office, who drafted the code of practice, insisted that the time is right to activate Part 3 of the Act as the police are finding that their investigations are being thwarted by encryption.

"The police have come to us and said that they need powers to get hold of encrypted data off suspects," Watkin said. "We've got a law like this on the statute book, and we've been waiting for people like them to come and give us compelling reasons why they need it."

One police officer in the audience argued that in the case of alleged child abuse, it was vital to access all the files on a suspect's machine so that the victims could be identified.

But Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist who has served as an expert witness in many computer-related trials, insisted that Part 3 of the RIP Act could not be justified.

"A person who rapes and damages a 12-year-old is going to get a bloody long sentence, and bloody good, too. What's the point in the police saying, 'We need a monstrous law so we can get to the rest of the data'?" Campbell asked.

The consultation on the draft code of practice will run until Aug. 31, and Watkin indicated that submissions received after that date will still be considered. You can see the code of practice on the Home Office Web site.

Graeme Wearden of police, suspect, officer, practice, U.K.


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Breaking Encryption Keys
It is difficult but absolutely possible to break the code on any encryption key. Intelligence agencies have been doing it for decades. Intelligence community computers are far superior to commercially available computers. Perhaps the British police should touch base with the code breakers if the suspected crime warrants the effort.
Posted by ricksco (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Possible but not practical
Modern encryption is so good that if done correctly it would take
too much resources in terms of money and time to crack the
encryption for run of the mill criminal/pedophile. No police
department could afford to spend millions of dollars or hundreds
of hours it would take.
Posted by m0kume (56 comments )
Link Flag
That depends...
Brute-forcing a large key (2048 or more bits) is
impractical -- possibly even impossible
(particularly if you don't know how big the key
is to start). Sure, any key can be forced, but
at what cost?

Compelling someone to turn over the key could
work -- assuming that they have it. Whose to say
they didn't store it on a USB fob that someone
else wandered off with. It's not as if someone's
going to commit to memory a random string of

Even with a key, one would have to be able to
both figure out how to apply it (the algorithm
used), and be able to validate that the
unencrypted information is intact. There's lots
of ways to hide data, and there's always a
possible that some files on the disk are simply
random strings of bits (to confuse and confound

And what of hidden file the user may not know
are stored on his machine. A user of a personal
computer can make a pretty good case that files
in odd places and such were left by malware.
Presumably the authorities would need to provide
evidence to the contrary.

It's a stupid exercise, I think. They ought to
focus on making a bust with physical evidence,
not busting someone and hoping there's
incriminating evidence on their PC.
Posted by Zymurgist (397 comments )
Link Flag
If yoyu have astronomical time, that is...
Yes, it's possible to brute-force 3DES key (used in Windows EFS). But not before the Sun turns to a red dwarf.
Your best bet is to brute-force the user's password to open the key storage, though even this is not always possible.
Posted by alegr (1590 comments )
Link Flag
They also want to be judge and jury
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Judge Dread!
Posted by Sboston (498 comments )
Link Flag
So criminals are using encryption and government isn't?
I found this story to be very very ironic. Here we have criminals taking care to protect their information when the government isn't (remember all the data breaches? <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>)

So a lesson to be learned...even from criminals: encryption DOES work. It might not be perfect, but, look, even cops are having a hard time getting to secured information. <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

Now if only private businesses and government agencies would start using this technology to protect us, as citizens and consumers...
Posted by ml_ess (71 comments )
Reply Link Flag
gov a step behind
Isn't that the way - government would rather be reactive than proactive when it comes to security.
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Link Flag
how about the fifth amendment?
I know this story is about the UK, but I can't help of thinking how long before the US goverment follows suit. In that case I'm wondering if the Fifth Amendment can be successfully invoked to strike down this type of law?
Posted by thanhvn (51 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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