UK Plans To Bring In Life Sentences For 'Serious Cyberattacks'
from the because-terrorism dept
At the official State Opening of the UK Parliament, the Queen makes a speech in which she lays out what the UK government hopes to achieve in the new legislative session. It’s one of the quainter British ceremonies — BuzzFeed has a good summary of just how quaint — but the one-line statements of intent can mask some very far-reaching plans. This year, for example, the Queen’s Speech contained the following item :
A serious crime Bill will be brought forward to tackle child neglect, disrupt serious organised crime and strengthen powers to seize the proceeds of crime.
The Guardian has more details of one particular measure the serious crime Bill will contain:
Any hackers that manage to carry out “cyberattacks which result in loss of life, serious illness or injury or serious damage to national security, or a significant risk thereof” would face the full life sentence, according to the serious crime bill proposed in Wednesday’s Queen’s speech.
As well as targeting cyberterrorists, the new offence in the proposed update to the Computer Misuse Act [CMA] 1990 would also hand harsher sentences to those hackers carrying out industrial espionage, believed to be a growing menace affecting UK business.
The law would have a maximum sentence of 14 years for attacks that create “a significant risk of severe economic or environmental damage or social disruption”. Currently, the section of the CMA covering such an offence carries a 10-year sentence.
Much of this is the kind of activity carried out in the form of attacks sponsored by governments outside the UK — or, as in the case of the NSA, directly by those governments. Despite the recent grandstanding by the US when it filed criminal charges against members of the Chinese military whom it accuses of espionage, there is little hope of ever persuading the main players to hand over their citizens for trial, so the new UK law will be largely ineffectual against the most serious threats.
But there is a real danger in the “or significant risk, thereof” part, since that gives the UK authorities huge scope to claim — as they have in other contexts — that some online action “risked” some terrible outcome, even though nothing actually happened. Things are made worse by the fact that there is no public interest defense or exemption for research. As the Guardian notes:
The government has also not addressed complaints over the application of current computer crime law, which some in the security industry claim actually makes the internet less safe.
This is because certain kinds of research could be deemed illegal. Experts known as penetration testers, who look for weaknesses in internet infrastructure, often carry out similar actions to real cybercriminals in their attempts to improve the security of the web, such as scanning for vulnerabilities.
But such research is punishable under British law, even if it is carried out for altruistic ends, leaving potential weaknesses unresolved, critics of the CMA said.
What this means is that while it will fail to tackle the most serious online attacks, and chill research into security flaws, the proposed Bill will conveniently allow the UK government to target groups like Anonymous who carry out high-profile but relatively harmless actions over the Net. This section of the proposed Bill is really about the UK government bolstering its already disproportionate powers to throttle online protests by characterizing them as “serious cyberattacks”, and threatening to impose life sentences on anyone involved.