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Waiting for the Knock


See the French translation here.

Imagine that you are afraid of a knock on the door.

Imagine that the knock could be the police, coming in secret to interrogate you. Imagine that they can demand you decrypt files for them, and demand you tell them your code keys, even to get evidence to use against you. In effect, they can force you to testify against yourself, and it is a crime to refuse.

Imagine that for these offenses you are effectively considered guilty unless you can prove your innocence: mere failure to comply is the crime. If you do not have the key they demand, you will be imprisoned unless you can prove it.

Imagine that they can behave arbitrarily, because their actions are secret. They do not need to get a court's authorization to demand your testimony. And if you tell anyone--your friends and associates, a news reporter, even in most circumstances an open courtroom--that you have been forced to testify, they will imprison you just for telling.

Imagine that the only judicial control over these actions is a special secret court, with no jury, where decisions are made by judges chosen for their sympathy to the prosecution. Imagine that they can hear evidence from the prosecutors in secret, so you do not even have a chance to deny it.

Unfortunately, there is no need for imagination. This is a real proposal--not in China or Iraq, as you might expect, but in Britain. It was proposed as part of the draft Electronic Communications bill, but has been withdrawn from there, probably to be reintroduced shortly in a separate "Regulation of Investigatory Powers" bill. (Proposals to extend government power are often secreted in bills with opposite-sounding names.) The country that gave the world the concept of the rights of citizens, of protection from abuse of government power, of the right to remain silent and not be compelled to testify against yourself, is tearing up the concept and throwing it away.

The rot in the British legal system began under the previous Conservative government, which passed an "anti-terrorist" law saying that--for certain crimes--if you refuse to answer questions, that can be held against you. Thus the first stone was thrown at the right to remain silent.

As a supposed protection against abuse, this law said that courts must not convict based on silence alone; they must have some other basis as well. But the same law established that an official accusation of membership in a prohibited organization can also be held against you. This, too, is not sufficient by itself--which only means that the two together are needed for a conviction. If you are accused of belonging to a prohibited organization, and you refuse to answer police questions, you go to prison.

Of course, every law that undermines the rights of citizens has an "urgent" justification. For this law, the justification was IRA terrorism; but the cure is far worse than the disease. A century from now, IRA bombing will be just a chapter of history, but the painful effects of the "cure" will still be felt.

The "New Labor" government of Prime Minister Blair which replaced the Conservative government is eager to extend this policy to other areas. I was not greatly surprised to learn that the same government also plans to eliminate the right to a jury in criminal trials (see The Guardian, November 20 1999, page 1). These policies would gladden the heart of an Argentine general.

When you speak with British officials about the issue, they insist that you can trust them to use their power wisely for the good of all. Of course, that is absurd. Britain must hold to the tradition of British law, and respect the rights of citizens to a fair trial and non-self-incrimination.

When you try to discuss the details, they respond with pettifoggery; for example, they pretend that the plan would not really consider you guilty until proven innocent, because the official forms that demand your code keys and your silence are officially considered the proof of guilt. That in practice this is indistinguishable from requiring proof of innocence requires more perspicuity than they will admit to.

If you live in Britain, what can you do?

  1. Take political action now. Tell all the political parties that this issue is of great concern to you, and invite each to be the one you will vote for to prevent such laws. Look at this archived site for further advice.
  2. Write to your MP, the e-Minister Patricia Hewitt (e.minister [AT] dti [dot] gov [D/O/T] uk), the Home Secretary, and the newspapers, stating your firm opposition to these measures.
  3. Talk with your Internet Service Provider's management about the importance of this issue.
  4. Start using encrypted mail, using the GNU Privacy Guard or another suitable encryption program, and use it as widely as possible and with as many people as possible. The more people are using encryption, the harder it will be for governments to stamp it out. The GNU Privacy Guard is Free Software (you are free to redistribute and change it), and is available on
  5. Once you have read an encrypted message, if you don't need to save it, get rid of it. Don't just delete the file; copy several other files of junk into the file, one by one, so that the old bits cannot be recovered. (The GNU Privacy Guard will soon provide a convenient command for doing this.)
  6. If you need to save an encrypted message, use steganography (hiding information by embedding messages within other harmless messages) so that it is impossible for anyone to be sure that encrypted data is present. You can use steganography for transmitting messages as well.
  7. Anyone, even you, could be a target of this law. Don't assume that you are safe just because you are "not a criminal"; almost everyone breaks some laws, but even if you do not, you could still be suspected. Your friends and correspondents are likely to be next after you.

    So arrange innocent-sounding "code phrases" with them now, things like "Agnes has a bad cold" (but don't use this one!), as a way you can inform them that you were interrogated by the secret police, without giving the police a way to detect that you did so.

You never know what might lead the secret police to your door. Take the necessary precautions now, because the only thing worse than fearing the knock on the door is being oblivious to the danger.

A version of this article was published in the Guardian, a London newspaper, on 25 November 1999.

As of March 2000, the R.I.P. was under active consideration in Parliament. One minor protection has been added: to imprison you for failing to produce a key, the government must prove you once had it. This provision seems designed to protect the Home Secretary, who is championing the bill, from a campaign of sending him encrypted email which he had no way to read. The change is a slight improvement, but the bill remains unworthy of a democratic country.

[Update in October 2007: this month the UK government enacted the regulations, authorized by this law, to put these powers into effect. This shows that Gordon Clown is no better than B'liar where human rights are concerned. Of course, the US and the UK have both made far worse attacks on human rights since this article was published.]

For more information, consult the Foundation for Information Policy Research, or FIPR.

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Copyright (C) 1999 Richard Stallman

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