The UK government will not try to ban encryption, a Number 10 representative has told Business Insider.
The denial comes after Prime Minister David Cameron suggested in Parliament at the end of June that he intended to crack down on encryption technology, saying he wanted to “ensure that terrorists do not have a safe space in which to communicate.”
Cameron’s comments echoed his earlier remarks on the subject — asking in January 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,” he added. “The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”
These statements had been widely regarded as a signal that he intended to attempt to ban strong encryption in the coming Investigatory Powers Bill in the fall. Strong encryption refers to a way of scrambling messages or data in such a way that it cannot be understood without the correct password or key — even by law-enforcement officials or the encryption-software provider.
The technology is two decades old but has been increasingly used in recent years since whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations about covert mass surveillance conducted by Western governments. Apple, WhatsApp and Facebook are among the companies that now incorporate strong encryption into their products to keep their users’ communications secure, prompting a pushback from law enforcement.
Tech experts, however, say this process of “going dark” is unavoidable: There is no way to implement a so-called backdoor into all encrypted products without endangering users and weakening privacy protections. (Encryption technology is additionally used to secure e-commerce transactions online, and it is also widely used by businesses and the government itself.)
Earlier this month a group of top computer scientists and security experts published a paper condemning any effort to weaken encryption, and well-respected cryptography expert Bruce Schneier told Business Insider that even attempting to ban encryption would “destroy the internet.”
But Number 10 is now emphatically denying that Cameron is considering such a ban, telling Business Insider, “The Prime Minister did not suggest encryption should be banned.”
“We accept and completely recognise the importance of encryption,” a representative said, highlighting its use in e-commerce as an example of why it will not be outlawed. The person did reiterate, however, that the British government believes “terrorists cannot have a safe space in which to operate” online — raising the question of how it hopes to achieve this.
After all, encryption products that cannot be broken by law enforcement are already widely available, from both big tech companies and foreign developers that do not have to comply with British laws. These are, by any account, “safe spaces” in which terrorists and criminals (and indeed anyone) can operate.
When asked this, the representative said it “underlines the complexity of the issue.”
Business Insider has also seen a letter sent from Baroness Shields, the minister for internet safety and security, to an MP in which Shields says “this government supports encryption, which helps keep people’s personal data and intellectual property safe from theft by cyber means. It is fundamental to our everyday use of the internet. Without the development of strong encryption allowing the secure transfer of banking details there would be no online commerce.”
It continues: “However, the prime minister has been clear that there cannot be areas of the internet which are off limits to the rule of law — and this has to include, where necessary and proportionate, individuals’ private communications.”
Read the full letter below:
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