As Amber Rudd ramps up the government’s draconian rhetoric on encryption, it could fall upon one of Theresa May’s close Cabinet allies to stand up for civil liberties. In November 2015 David Davis, then a humble backbencher, wrote this article for the FT blasting the Cameron government’s proposal to ban end-to-end encryption:
“The government’s approach to encryption also leaves much to be desired. At least it did not go ahead with Prime Minister David Cameron’s unwise proposal this year to ban end-to-end encryption — the unbreakable code that makes it impossible to read our online messages and transactions even if they are intercepted. Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about.”
Davis pointed out that ending encryption would be
“likely to strangle UK tech businesses, by prohibiting the spread of encryption to those services that do not already use it. This will put our communications companies at a severe disadvantage, as their overseas competitors are permitted to offer fully secure services forbidden to UK companies.”
And he had these choice words for the then Home Secretary Theresa May:
“The proposed authorisation and oversight are nowhere near as intelligent as the American, Canadian, German or Dutch systems. The claim by Theresa May, home secretary, that ours will be one of the strongest systems in the world is laughable. It will arguably still be the worst.”
Surely DD will not waver from his admirable stance just a year and a half ago…
— The Andrew Marr Show (@MarrShow) March 26, 2017
Following Amber Rudd’s talk of “necessary hashtags” and how “we don’t want to go into the cloud”, you’d be forgiven for thinking she is something of a digital immigrant. The Home Secretary has her sights trained on the messaging service WhatsApp and end-to-end encryption, the system which means a conversation can be read only by the sender and recipient and not intercepted by a middle man. Here’s why that’s a red herring…
1. A backdoor to end-to-end encryption would not have stopped the Westminster attack
Khalid Masood was not on the security services’ radar. So even if MI5 and GCHQ were able to intercept his WhatsApp messages before the attack, they would not have done so. The attack would have proceeded all the same. Any change in law or policy would have made no difference.
2. End-to-end encryption is not preventing MI5 read Masood’s messages
Rudd says detectives cannot access Masood’s final messages and that WhatsApp’s complicity in this is “unacceptable“. Today’s Telegraph front page says “Internet giants hide terrorist’s final note”. This is just wrong. WhatsApp do not have access to the unencrypted messages – the messages can only be read on the phones of the sender and recipient. The police presumably have Masood’s phone, it is highly likely they are now inside and able to read the messages. The only thing stopping them get in would be the phone’s passcode. Which is nothing to do with WhatsApp.
3. Encryption is binary
Either you have end-to-end encryption or you don’t. Giving MI5 and GCHQ a backdoor into WhatsApp means the service is no longer secure and any hacker can break in to any user’s messages. As Open Rights Group say, “compelling companies to put backdoors into encrypted services would make millions of ordinary people less secure online. We all rely on encryption to protect our ability to communicate, shop and bank safely”. Rudd is asking WhatsApp to open up all their users to attacks by cyber criminals and foreign regimes.
The Home Secretary is using encryption as a scapegoat when it is completely irrelevant to the Westminster attack. She is being aided by establishment journalists who do not understand technology – Andrew Marr’s interview was pathetic in its amateurism and today’s Telegraph front page is factually incorrect. As a side note, newspapers have splashed on attacks on Facebook, Google, YouTube, Uber and WhatsApp in the last week, today’s Mail bizarrely claims WordPress is helping terrorists. Almost as if Fleet Street has an advertising revenue-shaped ulterior motive for going after tech companies…