Government Defends Life Sentences For ‘Serious’ Hacks

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Home Office tells TechweekEurope that tougher prison sentences for computer crime are necessary

The government has defended its proposed changes to the Computer Misuse Act, including the possibility of a life sentence for being convicted of a hacking attack that compromises national security.

It comes after human right campaigners warned that the new criminal offences proposed in changes to the Serious Crime Bill form part of a government attempt to clamp down on legitimate whistleblowers and activists.

Life Sentence

The Serious Crime Bill is currently at report stage in the House of Lords. Under the current terms of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, the existing offence of ‘impairing a computer’ only carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, which the government feels does not reflect the level of economic and personal harm that such attacks can cause.

hacker © Alina Isakovich - FotoliaThe proposed update proposes that computer users deemed to have damaged national security of any country, or human welfare, the economy or the environment, could be hit with a life sentence in prison.

This has raised the ire of privacy campaigners and others, especially following concerns raised last week by Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) regarding the proposals and the scope of such legislation.

“As the internet affects more areas of our lives, computer legislation drafted in one context may be more widely applied than originally intended,” Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group was quoted by the Guardian as saying.

“We would hope that an increase in penalties under the Computer Misuse Act would be matched with additional protections – for example, through a public interest defence,” he added.

Government Response

But the government has told TechWeekEurope that the changes are necessary, and tougher prison sentences are required. It pointed out that a life prison sentence would only be used if the offence caused “serious damage” or because of the “creation of a significant risk of such damage.”

“Serious and organised crime blights lives and causes misery across the UK,” a Home Office spokesperson told TechWeekEurope in an emailed statement. “It is a threat to our national security and costs hard-working taxpayers at least £24 billion a year.”

“Our reliance on computer systems and the degree to which they are interlinked is ever increasing and a major cyber attack on our critical infrastructure would have grave consequences,” the spokesperson added. “Through this bill we will ensure that in the event of such a serious attack those responsible would face the justice they deserve.”

The Home Office spokesperson said that it was “carefully considering” the JCHR’s report on the Serious Crime Bill and would “respond in due course.”

Earlier this week, new government research revealed that half of Brits have fallen victim to cybercrime, with 53 percent viewing online offences as serious as those committed in the physical world.

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