Today there have been attention grabbing headlines in a number of news outlets. One of these headlines was “WhatsApp and iMessage could be banned under new surveillance plans”, from the Independent. The article outlined the possibility that technologies and applications, such as WhatsApp, would be banned as they allow users to send messages which are encrypted end-to-end. This falls in line with the new legislation that was rushed through during 2014, and the continuing loss of privacy that we have online.
In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which[…]we cannot read?
My initial urge was to get angry at how patently wrong the connection of encryption and privacy to terrorism and violence was. But then I decided to listen to the full comment from Cameron, rather than the paraphrased version. The full quote is as follows:
In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which, even in extremis with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, we cannot read?
It’s not much better, but it’s also not as bad as the original quote sounds. The issue is, I can’t say that I want terrorists to be able to plot to carry out these attacks on innocent people, but I don’t believe this is the way of doing it. The fundamental link between not having access to the content of every single communication made anywhere in the UK, and terrorism “winning”, is the key issue. It’s simply a complete fallacy and by allowing the PM to say that unopposed would be us accepting it as truth and allowing the rate of erosion to our online privacy to increase greatly.
Taking everyone’s ability to access a completely private form of communication is a heavy handed tactic which, as I’ve said before regarding government views and ideas on online freedom and privacy, won’t actually work. It is not possible to stop anyone from encrypting communications that they send. It may be possible to stop a company from profiting from offering this type of service, thereby taking it away from the common user, but it is not possible to stop people from doing that.
The types of people that really want communication which is envrypted end-to-end will be able to access it regardless of the law. Included in that user base are those that want to discuss illegal activities. It’s not difficult to find how to set up a method of encryption such as PGP, and the active online community will no doubt offer a great deal of help to anyone that’s stuck.
The Glowing Record of Piracy Laws
Further, piracy laws are always a hot topic and probably a good example to learn from. They’re now failing so excessively that the list of “Most pirated shows of the year” is now reported and celebrated. This year Game of Thrones hit the top of the list for a third year in a row after being illegally downloaded at least 8.1 million times. Guess who lost out and weren’t able to enjoy their favourite TV show with everyone else – paying customers in both the UK and the US. Now guess who were able to enjoy it ad-free, only minutes after it finished its first airing in the US – those pirating the episode from around the world.
In the same way, a law stopping completely encrypted, backdoor free communication would simply make the majority of online users more vulnerable to having their personal communications leaked to the public. 2013 and 2014 have been years where, more than ever, it’s clear that we don’t need to increase the likelihood of it happening.
Back to Work
To wrap up my rambling (and procrastination), I will simply conclude that, while I know that giving up our privacy isn’t the right way to help authorities deal with terrorism, I’m not entirely sure what is. I’d imagine that whatever solution is the best will involve far more general knowledge of technology and computer security in UK government. The hackers and cyber criminals of the world are using social engineering, vulnerabilities in code and brute force attacks to get what they want, and it’s working. Maybe trying something that works as well as the criminals’ methods, would be a good place to start.