RIPA tears up the right to remain silent

Chris Williams of the Register has written an excellent analysis of the recent jailing of a schizophrenic man for refusal to release cryptographic keys to the police. This was a scenario foreseen when RIPA was introduced, but is the first high-profile example of it being used to imprison an individual who demands the right to privacy.

I won’t attempt to recount the detail of his piece, but in short, the man (referred to as JFL) was arrested when returning to the UK from France because he was carrying a hobbyist rocket (without motor). A subsequent investigation revealed that he had released without charge for attempting to enter Canada, and he was returning to the UK to meet with Customs officials following a missed bail appointment. Forensics found trace amounts of explosive on him (9 nanograms, with 5 being the normal threshold at which evidence is ignored). He’d also had a number of hard drives, USB thumb drives and other materials delivered to addresses in the UK. So far, so good – there’s at least something to suggest suspicion.

However, the man refused to release the PGP keys to decrypt files on the drives, and so police sought a section 49 notice under RIPA Part 3 to give him a limited amount of time to release the keys. He did not attend his bail, and instead moved around until police caught up with him in a raid several weeks later. At this point, insisting that he would not release the keys, which he claims protect information relevant to business interests, he was charged with 10 offences under RIPA Part III. Police argue the files “could be child pornography, there could be bomb-making recipes.” JFL maintained his silence as a matter of principle.

JFL was tried and sentenced, although the suspicion of terrorist activity was dropped long before the trial, and no pre-sentence report on his mental health was requested by the court. He was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment and is currently in a secure mental unit after being sectioned whilst serving his sentence.

This is the British legal system at its very worst. Whilst there may have been grounds for an initial investigation, once it became clear that the only person JFL might be a danger to is himself, the police chose to pursue him under the catch-all of national security/child protection that is used to justify most failing and botched policies and central government projects. Even the lay person would recognise that a schizophrenia sufferer would probably misinterpret the authorities’ intentions and respond in a seemingly irrational manner to surveillance and investigation. This all smacks of saving face and hitting targets, and I trust that someone out there will use FoI rights to demand details of the costs involved in this prosecution.

In the meantime, remember that if you encrypt files and then lose the keys, this could happen to you too – the law won’t differentiate between refusal to disclose and failure to disclose. Welcome to the age of transparency.