A. Since the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act was passed and became law on 25 October 2000, electronic communications (which of course includes emails) can be monitored by security services, eg the police, MI5 etc.
Q. Isn't that an infringement of my civil liberties
A. You would think so, wouldn't you But the British Government believes that the RIP Act is in line with the right to privacy outlined in Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. And that the RIP Act brings the monitoring of electronic communications (and the internet in particular) into line with that of telephone calls, which is comforting!
Q. So what does the RIP Act actually allow the security services to do
A. It allows them to have access to any computers and electronic communications that it feels are a threat to national security, linked to paedophilia or internet crime.
Q. How will this information be retrieved
A. It will be collected via black-box interception (black boxes will be installed by ISPs), which basically allows them to collect communications data via clickstreams - information on the actual websites and chat rooms visited by a computer user, rather than the content of emails. If criminal activity is suspected as a result of such monitoring, a government warrant to intercept and decode internet content will then be requested. But all warrants have to be personally signed by the Home Secretary, so it is unlikely that he will inundated with requests It is believed that such powers will only be exercised in extreme cases.
The RIP Act has been the subject of much controversy as a result of its second clause, which relates to the burden of proof. In lay terms this means that any intercepted internet content that is encrypted will have to be decoded, ie by supplying the security service with PIN numbers, passwords etc. If an accused person does not supply this information they will be charged with obstruction and they could face a jail sentence of up to two years. Civil rights groups believe this clause reverses the burden of proof in UK law.
Q. If ISPs control the black boxes, does this mean that they will have access to my personal information
A. In theory, yes - but in practice no. ISPs have by law to maintain a 'reasonable intercept capability', which means that they have to collect all electronic data in case it may one day be retrieved�- similar to a black box on a plane.
Q. If this new law is aimed at catching criminals online, I have nothing to fear, do I
A. Well, maybe. The RIP Act also gives employers the right to access all company emails and internet activity, under the guise of monitoring computer activity for viruses - so if you're using the internet for non-work activity, you could get caught out.
Q. So can my phone be tapped if this new law on electronic communications is in line with current law on telephone usage
A. Currently, all telephone numbers are logged by your telecoms provider, eg BT (an illustration of this can be found in your itemised telephone bill). Satellite-linked mobile phone calls can already be monitored by the Menwith Hill listening post in Yorkshire, as part of a system run by the US National Security Agency.�The RIP Act goes further than previous legislation, as it allows potential access to internet content.
Q. Is there anyone I can complain to if I think I am being monitored unnecessarily
A. You can contact the Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK) Organisation at http://www.cyber-rights.org/background.htm. It is a non-profit making organisation whose main purpose is to promote free speech and privacy on the internet and raise public awareness of privacy issues. But it is unlikely that you'll know you're being monitored!
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�by Karen Anderson