The UK has been unlucky enough to know terrorism for quite some time. Many will remember the IRA campaigns of the 1970s and 80s. This was an era before smartphones and the internet, yet the Irish paramilitary group continued to wage a successful campaign of terror on the mainland.
It continued to recruit members and organize itself to good effect. Politicians of the modern era, led by Theresa May and various members of her government, would do well to remember this when they launch into yet another assault on Facebook, Google, and the technology platforms that are alleged to provide a “safe haven” for Islamic terrorists today.
Now she is calling for greater regulation of cyberspace, something the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation has openly criticized. Along with increasing moves across Europe and the world to undermine end-to-end encryption in our technology products, these are dangerously misguided policies which would make us all less safe, less secure and certainly less free.
These are dangerously misguided policies which would make us all less safe, less secure and certainly less free
Our “Sliding Doors” moment
Every time a terror attack hits, the government continues its war of words not simply against the perpetrators, but against the tech companies who are alleged to have provided a “safe haven” for them. After all, such rhetoric plays well with the right-wing print media, and large parts of the party.
“Safe haven” has become something of a mantra for the prime minister, alongside her other favorite; “strong and stable”. She argues that terrorists are hiding behind encrypted communications on platforms like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Apple’s iMessage, and are using social media platforms like YouTube to recruit members and distribute propaganda.
“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services, provide,” she said after the London Bridge attacks. “We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorism planning.”
Part of the regulation May wants to bring in could include fining tech companies that don’t take down terrorist propaganda quickly enough. Max Hill QC, independent reviewer of terror legislation, has rightly questioned this hard-line approach.
“I struggle to see how it would help if our parliament were to criminalize tech company bosses who ‘don’t do enough’. How do we measure ‘enough’? What is the appropriate sanction?” he said in a speech reported by The Times.
“We do not live in China, where the internet simply goes dark for millions when government so decides. Our democratic society cannot be treated that way.”
The UK risks following in the footsteps of authoritarian regimes like China, which would have a chilling effect on democracy
China is an interesting parallel to draw, because in many ways it offers a glimpse into an alternative future for the UK and Europe; one in which government has total control over the internet, where freedom of speech is suppressed and privacy is a luxury no individual has.
The problem is that no one sees authoritarianism coming, because it happens slowly, drip by drip. Regulating cyberspace would begin a slow slide into the kind of dystopic future we currently know only from sci-fi films. As Margaret Atwood’s heroine Offred says in her acclaimed novel The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
In many ways, we sit today at a Sliding Doors moment in history. Which future would you prefer?
The problem with backdoors
End-to-end encryption in platforms like WhatsApp and on our smartphones and tablets is something Western governments are increasingly keen to undermine, as part of this clamp down. It doesn’t seem to matter that this technology keeps the communications of consumers and countless businesses safe from the prying eyes of nation states and cybercriminals – it’s also been singled out as providing, you guessed it, a “safe space” for terrorists.
The Snoopers’ Charter already includes provisions for the government to force tech providers to effectively create backdoors in their products and services, breaking the encryption that keeps our comms secure. In fact, the government is trying to sneak through these provisions without adequate scrutiny or debate. They were leaked to the Open Rights Group and can be found here.
It remains to be seen whether the British government could actually make this happen. An outright ban is unworkable and the affected tech companies are based almost entirely in the US. But the signs aren’t good. Even the European Commission is being strong-armed into taking a stance against encryption by politicians keen to look strong on terror in a bid to appease voters and right-wing newspaper editors. Let’s hope MEPs stand up to such calls.
The problems with undermining encryption in this way are several-fold. It would give the state far too much power to pry into our personal lives, something the UK authorities can already do thanks to the Investigatory Powers Act (IPA), which has granted the government the most sweeping surveillance powers of any Western democracy. It would also embolden countries with poor human rights records to do the same.
Remember, encryption doesn’t just keep terrorist communications “safe” from our intelligence services, it protects journalists, human rights activists and many others in hostile states like those in the Middle East.
More importantly, it protects the communications of all those businesses we bank with, shop with, and give our medical and financial records to. The government can’t have its cake and eat it: recommending businesses secure their services with encryption on the one hand, but then undermining the very foundations on which our economy is built with the other.
Encryption protects your financial and medical data – “backdoors” would put that at serious risk.
Once a provider has been ordered to create a “backdoor” in their product or service, the countdown will begin to that code going public.
Even the NSA and CIA can’t keep hold of their secrets: attackers have managed to steal and release top secret hacking tools developed by both. In the case of the former this led to the recent global ransomware epidemic dubbed “WannaCry”.
Why should we set such a dangerous precedent, putting our data and privacy at risk, while the real criminals simply migrate to platforms not covered by the backdoor program?
“For years, cryptologists and national security experts have been warning against weakening encryption,” Apple boss Tim Cook has said in the past. “Doing so would hurt only the well-meaning and law-abiding citizens who rely on companies like Apple to protect their data. Criminals and bad actors will still encrypt, using tools that are readily available to them.”
In short, we need more police officers, constructive relationships with social media companies, and smarter ways of investigating terror suspects. Dragnet surveillance, encryption backdoors and more internet regulation is the quickest way to undermine all those democratic freedoms we hold so dear – and send us hurtling towards that dystopic authoritarian future.
Image credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann