Refusing to decrypt data for investigators gets student 6 months in jail

Christopher Wilson is a 22-year-old computer science student with Asperger's syndrome. He's also facing six months in prison for refusing to hand over the encryption keys to police during the course of an investigation. Wilson first found himself on the wrong side of the long arm of the law in October of 2012. At the time, he was suspected of emailing threats to the vice chancellor of Newcastle University, where he was working towards a master's degree, in which he promised to shoot members of the school's staff. The messages were able to be traced to servers that were connected to Wilson, but the allegations could never be substantiated and the charges were eventually dropped. But not before police confiscated several pieces of computer equipment from his home.

Wilson's legal troubles continued. Although charges were dropped in the Newcastle case, he became a suspect in a second set of threats made against the Northumbria police. In particular, he was suspected of calling and warning of an impending cyber attack, of attempting to break into the Serious Organised Crime Agency's website and of encouraging people to deface a Facebook memorial page set up for a pair of officers shot in Manchester.

As part of the investigation, police wanted to look at encrypted data stored on Wilson's computer. But the password he gave them didn't work. In fact, he provided investigators with 50 passwords, none of which turned out to be correct. So police turned to the courts, which compelled him to provide the correct key to decrypt the data in the interest of national security. Since Wilson refused to comply, he was sentenced to six months in prison under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA, the UK's wiretapping law. Of course, it would seem a stretch that such threats would fall under the guise of terrorism and national security, which the particular provisions of RIPA are meant to investigate.