Wednesday, September 16, 1998

British Police Attempt To Sidestep E-mail Protection

by Steve Gold

Newsbytes' sources have revealed that the Metropolitan Police have been holding a series of low-key discussions with major Internet service providers (ISPs) in the UK, aiming to streamline police access to e-mail and ISP user logs.

According to one reliable source, the aim of the discussions is to develop a ground-breaking agreement between the police and ISPs so that, where the police have reasonable suspicion that an individual is sending or receiving e-mail, or downloading images that involve paedophilia, then they can formally request full details of the Internet user's mailbox and system logs, for example, from the ISP in question.

While the aim of the project is to avoid the need for police to obtain a formal court order to access the ISP's computer systems, Newsbytes expects there to be a massive outcry from civil libertarian groups, since the police order could well be implemented against anyone with an account with a British ISP.

Newsbytes understands that an expose on the police plans will be broadcast on Channel 4 news at 19:00 hours on British television this evening.

Newsbytes' sources suggest that British ISPs are under immense pressure to comply with the police system since, if they do not comply and request a court order, the police could theoretically impound their computer systems, effectively putting an ISP out of action, and perhaps business, for an unknown period of time.

"While I can understand the police wanting to gain access to Internet users' files who are accessing the Net for paedophile images, this does seem something of a steamroller approach", said one industry source who spoke to Newsbytes after agreeing anonymity.

Newsbytes notes that a major flaw exists in the British police's modus operandi for the proposed system, since the e-mail file servers for America Online (AOL) and CompuServe (AOL is the UK's largest ISP) are held in the US. Only the company's sales and support operations are located in the UK.

"It will be interesting to see how the management of AOL and CompuServe in the US react to the news that they have to willingly hand over user logs and e-mail files to the British police", said the anonymous source.

As has been proven by various cases in the US, the normal legal protection afforded postal and telephone communications by anti- wiretap legislation is not automatically extended to include e-mail.

In the UK, it had been thought that the Interception of Communications Act might apply to e-mail, but the law relating to e-mail remains unproven, Newsbytes notes.

Copyright © 1998 by Post-Newsweek Business Information, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.