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Damaging national security could mean jail for computer users

5th Nov 2014

Computer users who are found to have damaged national security, human welfare, the economy or the environment could be facing jail time, a new proposal criticised by human rights experts.

The threat of a life sentence for computer users who are deemed to have caused such damage faces criticism from those who fear that the law could be used to target legitimate whistleblowers.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights stated their concerns over the legislation, including their worry that the criminal offences were not defined well enough, and that ‘vagueness is not permissible in the definition of criminal offences’.

According to the government, the legislation is needed in order to deal with ‘catastrophic’ cyber attacks which can lead to lives being lost, serious injury, or ‘serious damage to national security’.

It would be an update to the Computer Misuse Act 1990, but experts believe the current Act, which allows a maximum sentence of 10 years jail time is sufficient. Professor Peter Sommer, a cyber security academic, believes the legislation already in place is ‘adequate’ enough to deal with situations that arise from computer misuse, and that if the government wish to tackle terrorism for example, they should use terrorism legislation instead.

Sommer added that he believes the proposals have been prompted by politicians who wanted ‘the opportunity to stand up and sound tough’, but that if not carried out properly, the new laws could target whistleblowers.

In agreement is Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, who believes the legislation is too wide, and is calling for more protection for potential whistleblowers.

The government stated that as well as targeting cyber terrorists, the new plans would also target hackers guilty of industrial espionage, a growing problem in the UK.

A spokesperson for the Home Office added that serious and organised crime costs taxpayers at least £24bn each year, and that the new legislation would ensure those guilty of computer misuse and endangering national security were served justice.