RIPA Part III: a conviction for failing to provide a password

5 October 2010

Back in 2009 we had a close look at the surveillance commisionners reports and the implementation of RIPA Part III that makes failure to decrypt material an offense. Today the BBC is reporting that Oliver Drage, 19, of Liverpool has been convicted for refusing to give police the password to his computer. He is looking at spending 16 weeks in jail, merely for not handing out an encryption key.

BBC journalists, in their usual “impartial” style are quick to report the offence under which Mr Drake was arrested, but of course never convicted of. I will not be repeating it here as it might constitute slander, since the accusation was never in fact show to be true, and it is not even clear if the basis of the original suspicion played any role in the conviction.

The BBC also relays verbatim Det Sgt Neil Fowler, of Lancashire police, as saying: “Drage was previously of good character so the immediate custodial sentence handed down by the judge in this case shows just how seriously the courts take this kind of offence. [...] It sends a robust message out to those intent on trying to mask their online criminal activities that they will be taken before the courts with the ultimate sanction, as in this case, being a custodial sentence.”

Of course what the BBC’s impartial style fails to comment on, is that Mr Drake was in fact never shown to be participating in any online criminal activities aside the activity of not revealing his key to the police. At best it sends a robust message that innocent people mindful of their privacy in relation to the state will end up in jail, and at worse it signals to every serious criminal that if they do not reveal their keys they will get off with a light sentence. The police have powers to obtain warrants to enter premisses covertly, install surveillance equipment to retrieve keys, but instead they chose to simply ask the suspect to self incriminate themselves — this is poor policing, and will inevitably lead to travesties of justice.

This is just the beginning of RIPA part III being used, and of course I am looking forward to monitoring the legislation being used against people with legitimate needs for privacy, such as political activists, journalists, lawyers, whistleblowers, etc. Watch this space.

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