(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

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It is possible, in order to keep private any personal files you may have on your computer, to digitally encode them. In some countries, however, you could already be prosecuted if you don’t renounce this protection when the Police “ask” you to do so.

In England, for example, the possibility for the Police to demand decryption is part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) since year 2000. If some conditions are met, Part III of RIPA makes it a serious offense not to let them read your encrypted files. The reason is to force potential criminals to hand over all the proofs of crimes contained in their computers, even if they were encrypted.

For exactly the same reason, however, RIPA has already been described as a “hair-raising” piece of legislation by people thinking about the effect the powers being given to police would have: “you do not secure the liberty of our country and value of our democracy by undermining them,” Lord Phillips of Sudbury said. “That’s the road to hell.” Professor D. Korff, a Dutch human rights lawyer and data protection expert, said there was a real question as to “whether the powers undermined the presumption of innocence that human rights legislation enshrines”.

Even looking at the issue from a purely technical point of view, experts point out that it may also be possible to claim that one’s computer was under someone else’s control, making the usefulness of such powers pretty doubtful. Of course, if Trusted Computing became ubiquitous, such assertions may become unsustainable in Court.

What should you do?

All this must not stop people taking care of their own digital files, especially now that we store in personal computers, including laptops which are very easily stolen, so many private and business data. Digital cryptography is the technique of translating any block of bits (from your credit card number to each email message or document in your computer) in another block of bits that can be translated back only by somebody who knows the key to reverse the translation.

If you use a computer, please start encrypting everything you can. The real solution to prevent potential abuses is to use the right technology in the right way, fix broken laws through your vote, activism and so on, and immediately denounce the same abuses when they happen, maybe through the website associated with this book.