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.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “UK Plans To Bring In Life Sentences For 'Serious Cyberattacks'”

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38 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If the MAFIAA get their way they will add the word Cyber in front of Copyright Infringement for all copyright infringement conducted on the internet to distinguish from the copyright infringement that is conducted without a computer/internet and then will insist on a lifetime sentence given to each and every offender of Cyber Copyright Infringement conducted. God help us all if that should ever happen.

Trevor says:

Well

…or a significant risk thereof

There you have it. No ACTUAL harm needed. Just a “significant risk.”

How soon do you think it’ll be applied to people like Snodwn, Manning, et al?

“Leaking information regarding anti-terror efforts (mass surveillance) has the significant risk of jeopardizing the lives of operatives and citizens! LIFE.”

Anonymous Coward says:

When your business is spying the last thing you want is someone fixing things so you have to work at it. Best way is to make a law that claims to be for one thing but is actually for something else.

So while the general public is wide open to cybercriminals without any method to cure the intrusions, the spying agencies are setup pretty cozy.

Ramon Creager (profile) says:

Laws are for the little people

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.

One can bet that this doesn’t apply to the City bankers who robbed us all blind, despite the “serious” label. This bill is all about keeping the unwashed masses in their place.

zip says:

"... or a significant risk thereof"

The most problematic part of this upcoming law are the weasel words “… or a significant risk thereof.”

How would it feel to spend the rest of your life in prison for a harmless prank that didn’t injure anyone, didn’t damage any property, and didn’t harm national security — just because the government argues that it “might have”?

This will in effect give the government immense power to charge anyone with anything, basically making up laws on the fly, and charging people with crimes that never happened, but simply “might have.”

Anonymous Coward says:

the UK has gotten this idea from the USA, just as it has gotten the desire to block web sites and introduce censorship. from the USA as well is the desire to do all it possibly can to keep the entertainment industry going, using the ‘to protect the children’ as the excuse to put the censorship in place. you can bet as well that there will be trumped up and jumped up charges, again as in the USA, just so as to be able to put out the most harsh of sentences for the slightest of convictions

Androgynous Cowherd says:

The Snowden Clause

Any hackers that manage to carry out “cyberattacks which result in loss of life, serious illness or injury or serious damage to national security

Ah, that must be the Snowden Clause. So if anyone defects from GCHQ with a bunch of documents, they can throw the book at her.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: The Snowden Clause

I was wondering if anyone else caught that.

By throwing in ‘damage to national security’, they can threaten any whistleblower with a life sentence for publishing any leaked documents, making exposing government abuse of power or illegal actions carried out by them a more serious crime than accidentally killing someone or crashing the economy.

Anonymous Coward says:

So any imagined violation performed with the help of a communication device and/or electronics can now lead to a life sentence.

“You, writing those emails commenting on our politics, pose a risk to national security”

“Nice” that they will add civil/criminal forfeiture to this. Never to late to get some good stuff from the people.

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