Richard Stallman -- Waiting for the Knock
Nov 25, 1999, 08:12 (117 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Richard Stallman)
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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but has been withdrawn from there, probably to be reintroduced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?
- 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.
- Write to your MP, the e-Minister Patricia Hewitt (email@example.com), the Home
Secretary, and the newspapers, stating your firm opposition to
- Talk with your Internet Service Provider's management about the
importance of this issue.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.