David Cameron’s move to ban strong encryption is dangerous and futile

In the wake of the terrible events in France, the Conservative Party of the UK are, in an act of tedious predictability, capitalising on a crisis to sell a policy that further erodes British freedoms.

David Cameron wants to ban any encryption that the government, or government agencies, can't crack in extreme cases. Here's his speech, transcript below the video –

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, that we cannot read? Well, up until now, governments in this country have said, "no, we must not have such a means of communication".

That is why, in extremis, it has been possible to read someone's letter. That is why, in extremis, it has been possible to listen in to someone's telephone call. That is why the same applies to mobile communications. Let me stress again – this cannot happen unless the Home Secretary personally signs a warrant. We have a better system for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of.

But the question remains; are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn't possible to do that? And my answer to that question is, "no we must not". The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.

Let's break this down bit by bit.

Legal protections

Let me stress again – this cannot happen unless the Home Secretary personally signs a warrant. We have a better system for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of.

The government said the same things about the intrusive Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), introduced in 2000. This was legislation designed to target potential terrorists, and it made its way into law because of those promises.

It came as no surprise to those of us who opposed it, then, when that power was used as a convenience rather than a tool of last resort. The Belfast Telegraph covered a recent story in which the RIPA is being used to catch TV licence fee evasion.

Hardly a threat to national security. This is the fate of intrusive powers voted into law; once a government has them, they're loathe to give them up, and as time goes on and their newsworthiness decreases, their scope is quietly widened.

A very recent discovery by the Open Rights Group that the government is trying to sneak the almost unchanged text of the failed Snoopers' Charter into a current draft of the Communications Data Bill is a perfect illustration of this. The Snoopers' Charter was debated by the Commons and the Lords for over a year, to unanimous agreement that it was inappropriate. The government wants the powers it grants anyway, and they're resorting to subterfuge to get it.

Chilling effects

But the question remains; are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn't possible to do that? And my answer to that question is, "no we must not". The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.

Free speech is absolutely contingent on privacy. For a populace to be able to discuss the wrongs of its government, it needs a reasonable expectation of privacy. It's true that the powers to tap phones, read letters, and surveil meetings already exist, but the thing that distinguishes Internet surveillance is one thing – scale.

It's not easy to tap every phone call in a country. It's downright infeasible to open every letter or surveil every meeting. It is, however, quite possible (at governmental scale) to monitor every unencrypted Internet communication, especially cross-border traffic where the number of physical pipes is much smaller than intra-country traffic.

If everything we say or do online can be reasonably considered to come under governmental monitoring, one of the most important (if not the most important) communication infrastructures becomes unusable. Dissent is silenced by the old-world practicalities of distance; broadcasting a message becomes limited by who you can contact directly.

Technical infeasibility

I think it comes as no surprise that Cameron is not an expert in the field of cryptography. Outlawing strong encryption would be a disaster. There's no distinction between 'good' and 'bad' crypto – if the criterion is that government can't decrypt it, then wave goodbye to the same technologies that safeguard online banking.

Free strong cryptography, for example the GNU Privacy Guard, is ubiquitous. Outlawing its use isn't going to stop terrorism. I can hardly imagine a hardened terror cell, willing to murder innocents, choosing to discuss their plans in plaintext because encrypting them is against the law. This law is not about terrorism, it's about a government that wants more control over its narrative. Worse, it puts its populace at risk of things like identity theft, due to a lack of protection of their communication against criminal surveillance, to achieve that.

Help to stop this

Organisations like the Open Rights Group and the EFF are working against this sort of thing, and deserve your support. Don't give up another chunk of your freedom of speech to a government that wants to control how you can criticise it.