For a long time, people in the tech sector have tried to explain to ministers that demands to ban encryption are deeply unwise. We agree with them – encryption is essential to the functioning of much modern technology, from ATMs to business communications, and while the idea of back doors being created for the good guys might sound nice, in reality a back door is there for anyone to use, be they MI5 or Russian hackers or criminal gangs. Not for the first time, a banner headline by politicians posing as keeping us safe could in fact put us more at risk.
It is therefore encouraging to see that the Home Secretary appears to have started to get this. In today’s Telegraph she writes:
“Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online…To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.”
This is at least an improvement from the past rhetoric of the Home Office, which too often sounded like it was arguing for what it wanted regardless of how the world and the technology work.
However, there’s evidently still some way to go. For Rudd continues:
“But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice. I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication. That might be true in theory. But the reality is different. Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security. So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”. Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?”
This argument doesn’t really make any sense. Having acknowledged that encryption is an essential element of the modern economy, and retreated from the previous proposals of a ban on end-to-end encryption, the Government still seems to be complaining that end-to-end encryption exists. It isn’t just “true in theory” that a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a judge can’t overcome the laws of mathematics, it is simply true – end-to-end encryption does what it says on the tin, and can’t be retrospectively revoked by an order from Whitehall.
In effect, it seems the Home Secretary’s speech “is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called back doors”, but simply to ask them not to offer such secure services. This is on the supposed grounds that the Government believes only wrong-uns would possible want such services, and other users wouldn’t mind if WhatsApp became less secure.
This rather ignores the evidence of the market, in which millions of people have actively opted for services which offer privacy as a basic guarantee. That’s as much because they distrust big businesses with their personal information as because of a fear of outside snooping, but it appears to be something that people value nonetheless – in their work as well as in their private lives.
So again it appears that the Home Office is trying to make headway on an issue without properly understanding the benefits of a technology to consumers. The Home Secretary asked “Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?” A proper answer to this question would read: “Quite a lot of people, actually”.
To find one useful example, she could talk to her own colleagues – there are innumerable WhatsApp groups of MPs, and of SpAds, and of Conservative Party campaign staff, all chatting away about sensitive topics, safe in the knowledge that they are using a service which is securely encrypted and therefore private.