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Get Power To Tap Email
By Michael Prescott
Political Editor
Computer users who refuse to divulge their passwords to the authorities face up to two years in jail under increased police powers to be unveiled in next month's Queen's speech.
Other measures drawn up by the government will make it easier for companies to monitor employees' phone calls and e-mails. A third part of the crackdown will give the police new authority to tap mobile phone calls, pager messages and e-mail.
The plans were already attracting criticism last night, with one Tory MP warning that the government risked creating "a state surveillance system like something out of Orwell's 1984".
Government ministers will justify the measures as necessary to trap pornographers, drug traffickers and fraudsters who exploit new technology. Police officers who gain a search warrant from the courts can already look at computer files, but provisions in the forthcoming e-commerce bill will allow them to demand passwords used to protect sensitive data. A suspect who witholds them faces a jail term of up to two years.
"Paedophiles and drug barons tend to send material that can be unlocked only if you know a code often extending to many digits," said a senior government source last night. "The law has to catch up with this."
The bill will also legally oblige internet service providers (ISPs) to keep records showing to and from whom material has been sent and received. In spite of industry complaints about the cost, ministers want the ISPs to keep detailed records on all customers for days at a time.
"The provision will prove invaluable in tracking down paedophile rings, for example," said a source at the Department of Trade and Industry, which has drawn up the measure in co-operation with the Home Office.
Many companies monitor employees' phone calls and e-mails to ensure customers and clients are being dealt with according to required standards. This is a grey area legally, but the Home Office is to give firms a legal right to monitor their workers, so long as they warn them that this is company practice.
The proposed new Interception of Communication Act will also deal with criminals who frequently change their mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses, to exploit the fact that warrants are issued for a particular number or address. New catch-all warrants will cover all of a named individual's communications devices and will last for three months instead of two.