Might of a Keystroke; Technology Correspondent Kurt Jacobs Looks at Implications of the Draft Bill on Electronic Communications Regulations

Article excerpt

Laws which will make a keystroke as legally binding as a penstroke are set to go through Parliament, opening the way for an explosion in e-commerce in Britain.

And the Government plans to legalise technology used to keep private information safe from prying eyes on the Internet.

But although the draft Electronic Communications Bill has been stripped of some of its more draconian measures, it will still allow police to demand back-door access to private, encrypted data.

The Government claims that the draft Bill, revealed on Friday, will clarify the legal status of electronic signatures and impose some security over Internet communication.

Electronic signatures, used to identify a person and indicate whether a message is genuine, are a crucial element to the expansion of e-commerce and need to have the same legal force as signatures written on paper, said Trade Minister Mr Michael Wills.

He added: "The Bill establishes conclusively that all electronic signatures, however produced and of whatever form, are admissible in court." Mr Wills said that the Bill would protect consumers and businesses by ensuring credit card details and other personal information could not be read when people shop on-line and would shield intellectual property from competitors.

Legal clarification was also needed for encryption, the process which scrambles the contents of an electronic message so that no-one except the intended recipient can read it.

The problem with encryption - which is freely available via the Internet - is that anyone can use it, including criminals who wish to communicate in secrecy.

Mr Wills had announced in May that the Government had dropped a central element of the Bill designed to boost security and cut fraud.

The key escrow provision - a procedure under which encryption keys used to protect information have to be registered with a third party which can be accessed by police - was jettisoned after fierce lobbying by business.

But still included in the four-part Bill are rules under which the police can demand back-door access to encrypted data.

Mr Wills said: "In seeking to promote electronic commerce, it is also vital that the Government ensures that the ability of the agencies tasked with combating crime and threats to national security is not critically undermined by criminal use of the very technologies, such as encryption, which are needed to make the electronic commerce revolution happen. …