David Cameron’s announcement that he intends to ban encryption that the UK government cannot crack has provoked an immediate backlash.
Speaking in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the British Prime Minister asked whether “we want to allow a means of communication between two people which even in extemis with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally that we cannot read? …My answer to that question is no, we must not.”
Cameron says that if he wins the General Election this year, he’ll bring in regulation banning such “strong” encryption.
The declaration has activists up in arms. Jim Killock, executive director of human rights organisation Open Rights Group, said that Cameron’s plans “appear dangerous, ill-thought out and scary.” They make “us all more vulnerable to criminal attack.”
He’s referring to a common criticism of “backdoors,” or secret messages written into encryption software. These can be useful at catching criminals if authorities have access, but dangerous if found and exploited by “bad guys.”
Author and activist Cory Doctorow has written a scathing takedown of Cameron’s plans, in which he highlights its fatal flaw: “There’s no backdoor that only lets good guys go through it,” he writes. If you leave in a vulnerability for law enforcement, it will be abused by “foreign spies, criminals, crooked police.”
Writing for the Guardian, James Ball also suggests that a blanket ban on encryption would “spell the end of e-commerce” in the UK since credit card details are generally always sent via secure encrypted connections. “Cameron either knows his anti-terror talk is unworkable and is looking for headlines,” Ball says, “or he hasn’t got a clue.”
But let’s say the government decided to go ahead with the plans anyway. What would happen?
First, dozens of products and apps would be banned or have to change the way it operates, including the ubiquitous iPhone, which is now encrypted by default. Under the recent change, Apple does not have the technical capability to decrypt the phone, even when law enforcement has a warrant. The company has come under heavy criticism from some in the US over the issue (one senior police officer claimed the iPhone would become the “phone of choice for the paedophile”), but so far, Apple’s not budging.
If CEO Tim Cook didn’t agree to introduce backdoors into the devices, the Cupertino company — and its millions of UK customers — could be breaking the law.
Wildly popular messaging app WhatsApp is another. Founder Jan Koum has said he was affected by Soviet surveillance growing up, and now offers his users end-to-end encryption the company cannot crack. Given his beliefs, it’s unlikely he’d agree to change the code — so the UK would have to ban the world’s most popular messaging app.
Another important service that would be affected is PGP (Pretty Good Privacy). It’s an encryption service that is used to facilitate secure communication, often by email, and is widely used by journalists, activists, dissidents and whistleblowers around the world. It’s inconceivable that developers would agree to Cameron’s plans, as any backdoor would endanger the lives of activists that rely on the service worldwide.
And Cameron’s ban would mean that nearly every digital journalist in Britain would be breaking the law by continuing to use it to communicate with sources.
On a technical level, it’s difficult to imagine how such a ban could ever be implemented. As Doctorow points out, the level of Internet filtering that would be required to block rogue software from getting in would put Britain on a par with “Syria, Russia, and Iran” — and even then it’s not very effective. The “great firewall of China” was built at enormous expense to the country, but activists are still able to circumvent it.
Incredibly popular coding sites like GitHub would also have to be banned, lest they’re used to distribute illicit encryption software. Doctorow even suggests that “anyone visiting the country from abroad must have their smartphones held at the border until they leave,” because their devices would be illegal in Britain.
Cameron’s plans, even if technically feasible, would force Britain to ban some of the most popular digital products in the world. Britons would be furious, and almost certainly defy the ban. It’s highly unlikely it will ever actually come to pass.