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Britain OKs law to allow cyber-spying

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LONDON — Legislation allowing the British government to track e-mails and seize encrypted Internet communications has passed its final hurdle in Parliament.

The law, hailed by the government as a bulwark against organized crime but condemned by civil libertarians as the harbinger of an Orwellian state, was approved by the House of Commons on Wednesday evening. After the formality of a royal signature, it will become law on Friday.

The measure enables law-enforcement authorities to demand records of Internet traffic and view the content of encrypted messages. Once the law takes effect in October, the snooping will be overseen from a multimillion-dollar spy center reported to be located within the headquarters of MI5, Britain's domestic espionage agency.

Internet service providers will be required to set up secure channels to the center — innocuously named the Government Technical Assistance Center — so they can transmit information about Internet traffic.

The government says the law is needed to fight technology-savvy criminals and Internet crime.

Lawmakers in the House of Commons agreed without a vote to adopt amendments to the bill proposed by the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Parliament.

The amendments sought to allay the fears of Internet service providers about the cost of complying with the new rules, and calm businesses and financial institutions who worried that being forced to hand over the keys to encrypted material could compromise Internet security.

Encryption is commonly used by business and in e-commerce transactions to protect credit card numbers and other information.

Under the amendments, individuals will not be required to prove they do not hold the keys to encrypted material — a provision that was criticized by rights groups as a reversal of the burden of proof.

And Home Office Minister of State Charles Clarke, the government official in charge of the bill, said law enforcers who ask to see records of Internet traffic will not be able to read the content of the messages.

Web page logs — lists of Internet sites browsed — also may not be obtained without a warrant.

Clarke said the government would contribute $30 million to service providers to cover the cost of installing the "black box" links to the spy center.

"We believe that the worry that the bill will cause financial crises for particular companies is unfounded," he said.

The fears of civil libertarians may prove harder to calm.

Labor Party lawmaker Harry Cohen worried that information obtained by one agency could be passed on to others, and said the system — overseen by a single interception commissioner — was open to abuse.

"I think that the provisions dealing with communications data are born of complacency, are unsatisfactory, and have little regard for the protection of privacy and commercial confidences," he said.

On the Net:

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill, www.homeoffice.gov.uk/oicd/ripbill.htm

Foundation for Information Policy Research: www.fipr.org