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UK Proposes Making the Sale and Possession of Encrypted Phones Illegal

Wednesday February 8, 2023. 11:10 PM , from Slashdot
An anonymous reader quotes a report from Motherboard: A section of the UK government has proposed making the sale or possession of bespoke encrypted phones for crime a criminal offense in its own right. The measure is intended to help the country's law enforcement agencies tackle organized crime and those who facilitate it, but civil liberties experts tell Motherboard the proposal is overbroad and poorly defined, meaning it could sweep up other forms of secure communication used by the wider population if not adjusted. 'At the moment the government proposal appears to be vague and overly broad. While it states that the provisions 'will not apply to commercially available mobile phones nor the encrypted messaging apps available on them' it is difficult to see how it will not result in targeting devices used on a daily [basis] by human rights defenders, protesters and pretty much all of us who want to keep our data secure,' Ioannis Kouvakas, senior legal officer and assistant general counsel at UK-based activism organization Privacy International, told Motherboard in an email.

The proposal is included in a document published by the Home Office (PDF). In that document, the Home Office proposes two legislative measures that it says could be used to improve law enforcement's response to serious and organized crime, and is seeking input from law enforcement, businesses, lawyers, civil liberties NGOs, and the wider public. The first measure looks to create new criminal offenses on the 'making, modifying, supply, offering to supply and possession of articles for use in serious crime.' The document points to several specific items: vehicle concealments used to hide illicit goods; digital templates for 3D-printing firearms; pill presses used in the drug trade; and 'sophisticated encrypted communication devices used to facilitate organized crime.' In other words, this change would criminalize owning an encrypted phone, selling one, or making one for use in crime, a crime in itself.

With encrypted phones, the Home Office writes that both the encryption itself and modifications made to the phones are creating 'considerable barriers' to law enforcement. Typically, phones from this industry use end-to-end encryption, meaning that messages are encrypted before leaving the device, rendering any interception by law enforcement ineffective. (Multiple agencies have instead found misconfigurations in how companies' encryption works, or hacked into firms, to circumvent this protection). Encrypted phone companies sometimes physically remove the microphone, camera, and GPS functionality from handsets too. Often distributors sell these phones for thousands of dollars for yearly subscriptions. Given that price, the Home Office says it is 'harder to foresee a need for anyone to use them for legitimate, legal reasons.' The Home Office adds that under one option for legislation, laws could still criminalize people who did not suspect the technology would be used for serious crime, simply because the technology is so 'closely associated with serious crime.' Potential signs could include someone paying for a phone 'through means which disguise the identity of the payer,' the document reads. Often distributors sell phones for Bitcoin or cash, according to multiple encrypted phone sellers that spoke to Motherboard. The document says 'the provisions will not apply to commercially available mobile phones nor the encrypted messaging apps available on them.' But the Home Office does not yet have a settled definition of what encompasses 'sophisticated encrypted communication devices,' leaving open the question of what exactly the UK would be prepared to charge a person for possessing or selling.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.
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