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Activist Beats U.K.’s Security Services Over Encryption Key Demand

Alleged hacktivist Lauri LoveAlleged hacktivist Lauri Love
Alleged hacktivist Lauri LoveCourage Foundation

The U.K.’s version of the FBI has failed in a legal attempt to force Lauri Love, an activist suspected of aiding cyber-attacks against U.S. targets, to hand over the keys to encrypted data that has been seized from him.

Prosecutors in the U.S. say Love was involved in hacking the U.S. Army, the Federal Reserve, NASA and other targets as part of “hacktivist” protests in the wake of the suicide of Aaron Swartz in 2013. The “#OpLastResort” attacks were led by the Anonymous collective.

Love was first arrested in the U.K. in 2013, on the basis of allegedly breaking the country’s Computer Misuse Act. He was released on bail, but the National Crime Agency (NCA), which had seized his computers, tried to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to get him to disclose his passwords and keys.

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When Love refused, the NCA let its RIPA-based “section 49” order expire. Then Love, who has been diagnosed with Aspergers, was suddenly rearrested last year. This time, the agency asked district judge Nina Tempia at the Westminster Magistrate’s Court to “direct” Love to hand over his key.

Instead of turning to RIPA again, the NCA was this time trying a very different tactic. Love had launched a civil claim against the agency, demanding the return of computer storage equipment that the NCA hadn’t given back to him. The NCA made its request to the judge as part of that case, saying it wanted to get the key before deciding whether to return the equipment.

Love’s lawyers argued that the police were trying to access the data on the equipment “by the back door rather than by the route sanctioned by parliament in RIPA.”

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On Tuesday, Tempia refused to play along with the NCA, saying the police would need to use RIPA to get the key.

“The case management powers of the court are not to be used to circumvent specific legislation that has been passed in order to deal with the disclosure sought,” she said.

This isn’t the end of Love’s travails, by far. The main hearing in his civil case will be in July, and—perhaps more importantly—the hearing for his extradition to the U.S. will take place at the end of June.

Still, it’s a significant victory in itself.