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Richard Stallman -- Waiting for the Knock

Nov 25, 1999, 08:12 (117 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Richard Stallman)

By Richard Stallman GNU

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ]

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as part of the draft Electronic Communications bill (http://www.fipr.org/polarch/draftbill99/index.html), but has been withdrawn from there, probably to be reintroduced shortly in a separate "Regulation of Investigatory Powers" bill.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 www.stand.org.uk for further advice.
  2. Write to your MP, the e-Minister Patricia Hewitt (e.minister@dti.gov.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 www.gnupg.org.
  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 to hide it inside one or more image files, 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.

Copyright 1999 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation, the author of the GNU General Public License (GPL), and the original developer of such notable software as gcc and Emacs.

Ian G. Batten comments:
I spent quite some time with RMS ten years ago, and I have a high regard for his intellect and insights. I also have been campaigning within the UK on this topic.

Richard makes a few conflations that should be corrected. The Prevention of Terrorism act is, as someone points out, temporary legislation that has to be renewed annually, and will almost certainly pass into history with the troubles (we hope). Certainly the provisions allowing exclusion from the mainland are unsustainable. The appalling measures to allow inferences to be drawn from silence were not related to the PoTA, but were introduced in a crime bill for use against _all_ suspects. The current government's proposals to end the rights of jury trials are also extremely disturbing, but are in fact not a new principle: there are already crimes for which no right of jury trial exists. The extension to imprisonable crimes is new, but it is unlikely the measure will make law in its current form. The government has also mooted passing permanent legislation which alters the PoTA provisions and makes some of them permanent: I am not clear about the status of that effort. The worst aspect of the distortions of the law caused by the troubles are Diplock Courts, which allow judges to sit alone on cases that would _always_ be jury trials on the mainland. The nationalist community, particularly, is rightly suspicious of that.

I'd take significant issue, by the way, with Richard's claim that the ``cure is far worse than the disease'' in the case of the IRA terrorism. The tragedy of the PoTA is in fact that it didn't provide any sort of cure. Its powers, however, can be seen to be proportionate to killing on the scale of the mainland bombing campaigns of the seventies and eighties. America has never experienced that (the World Trade Centre and the Oklahoma bombings were carried out in isolation) and I would suggest that if fatal bombings because routine in the USA people would be far less critical of measures, no matter how misguided, taken in an attempt to prevent them. That's not to defend them, but to set them in a context.

However, Richard cuts to the core of the issue surrounding the forthcoming Interception of Communications Act update (which is, I believe, where this issue has found its squalid home). It means, for example, that I could be compelled under force of law to disclose my private key because mail sent _to_ me by ``suspects'' was under scrutiny, and that a disclosure by me to another party that mail sent to me was being read would be itself illegal. This is socially corrosive, morally wrong and technically ludicrous. It's ludicrous because duress phrases and perfect forward secrecy protocols allow the bad guys to know the situation or prevent it mattering, while for the man in the street things are not so good. Laws which attack the innocent while providing no threat to the guilty are not merely morally repugnant, they are practically useless as well.

However, it's unhelpful to talk of a `British Secret Police'. Hyperbole like that doesn't assist those of us in the UK opposed to these measures in opposing them, any more than muttering about ZOG assists your case in the US --- no matter how right your argument may be. There is no likelihood of a secret police taking people into a Kafkaesque nightmare. There is, however, every chance of innocent bystanders having their privacy assaulted and, most importantly, little chance of actual criminals being detected.

Richard Stallman responds:

Ian Batten was kind enough to mail me his response to my article. He argues that Americans might accept repressive measures more readily if we were more afraid of terrorism. That could well be true, since the US has employed such measures domestically in the past. It only shows that Americans can be just as foolish as anyone else. We must educate America, as well as Britain, to reject tyranny when it is offered as a solution to the problem du jour.

I stand by the use of the term "secret police". While the proposal does not involve a special and separate police force, any police force that interrogates people in secret is entirely qualified for the term.