In the debate over encrypting our private communications and giving the government backdoor access to better thwart terrorism, it’s hard to tell where the British government stands.
“Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online.”
“We need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
“To be very clear Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.”
“There is a problem in terms of the growth of end-to-end encryption.”
These statements might sound contradictory, but they have one thing in common: they can all be attributed to the UK’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
Rudd has said all of these things and more about encryption in various speeches, interviewsover the past few months and aself-penned articlesearlier this week. It’s not just you. From reading these statements, even in context, it’s all pretty confusing.
The comments are just the latest turn in the debate over encryption, which has become a bugbear of the British government in the wake of multiple terror attacks in the UK during 2017. While he protections guard our privacy, they also prevent the authorities from being able to read messages between terrorists. Prime Minister Theresa May has called multiple times on tech companies to “do more” to tackle the terror threat. Rudd, ahead of attending theGlobal Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism on Tuesdaywrote an editorial in the Telegraph saying that the UK isn’t looking to ban encryption, but does want some kind of change.
The back and forth from Rudd is counterproductive because she’s seemingly seeking a middle ground that doesn’t exist. By parsing her statements, Rudd appears to suggest a version of encryption that is almost, but not absolutely, unbreakable. But end-to-end encryption means that not even the companies that create and enforce security measures can decrypt your messages, so the idea of an emergency access point seems far-fetched.
“Amber Rudd must be absolutely clear on what co-operation she expects from Internet companies,” said Jim Killock, executive director of UK digital rights campaign Open Rights Group. “She is causing immense confusion because at the moment she sounds like she is asking for the impossible.”
It’s not like tech companies aren’t willing to help. Facebook, Twitter and Google have shown willingnesswork with governments on tackling terrorism.
Amber Rudd speaking at the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism
But they aren’t bending on the issue of putting in backdoors for government access. As tech companies and security experts have repeatedly pointed out, if the companies themselves have a way of accessing these communications, so potentially do more malicious people.
Breakable encryption could also, as numerous experts, including Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, point out, chase terrorists onto other platforms that aren’t as willing to cooperate with governments.
“If people move off those encrypted services to go to encrypted services in countries that won’t share the metadata, the government actually has less information, not more,” Sandberg said in an interview broadcast by the BBC last week.
In fact, it’s already happening. On Wednesday, three men were found guilty in the UK of plotting a terrorist attack and had been using the encrypted app Telegram to communicate with one another. Telegram was called out by Europol chief Rob Wainwright earlier this year for “causing major problems,” by not being cooperative with law enforcement.
Another allegation Rudd has leveled at end-to-end encryption is that “real people” don’t care about it. People don’t use WhatsApp because it is secure, she said in her Telegraph editorial, but because it is convenient, cheap and user-friendly. This is more than a huge generalization, it’s an assertion for which she provides absolutely no supporting evidence.
Indeed, her comments have attracted criticism from privacy organization Big Brother Watch, which said they were “at best nave, at worst dangerous.”
“Suggesting that people don’t really want security from their online services is frankly insulting, what of those in society who are in dangerous or vulnerable situations, let alone those of us who simply want to protect our communications from breach, hack or cybercrime,” said Renate Samson, the organization’s chief executive in a statement.
“Once again the Government are attempting to undermine the security of all in response to the actions of a few,” he said. “We are all digital citizens, we all deserve security in the digital space.”
Rudd maintains “there are options” for using end-to-end encryption and also making sure terrorists “have no place to hide” online. But what these options are seem to be a mystery to everyone but her. For the sake of the British public, many of whom do care that their communications are kept private and secure, she needs to explain how this will work.
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