The surveillance bill granting the government sweeping powers to access e-mail and other encrypted Internet communications passed its final vote in the House of Commons yesterday and is set to become law 5 October.

Among other provisions, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) bill requires ISPs (Internet service providers) to track all data traffic passing through their computers and route it to the Government Technical Assistance Centre (GTAC). The GTAC is being established in the headquarters of MI5.

The House of Commons, which had already passed the RIP bill earlier in the year, voted to approve amendments added by the House of Lords 13 July.

Some ISPs and civil rights organizations have argued that the amendments are mainly cosmetic and do not adequately address the "Big Brother" powers granted to the government to access e-mail and other electronic data without a warrant.

Under the provisions of the RIP bill, the Home Office can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications, with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order.

Furthermore, if a company official is asked to surrender an encryption key to the government, that individual is barred by law from telling anyone, including their employer that they have done so.

Guidelines for this "tipping-off" offence, as it is known, could leave an international company completely unaware that what it assumes is secure company data may be under investigation by MI5. Those violating the tipping-off offence can face up to five years in prison.

While U.K. employees are protected against the consequences of passing encryption keys or encrypted data to the government, that protection does not extend outside the U.K. to other jurisdictions, such as that of the parent company.

Some ISPs, including PSINet Inc., have said they will be forced by the RIP bill to move their operations out of the U.K. altogether.

The Home Office, in London, can be contacted at