Say goodbye to digital Britain

What David Cameron’s proposed UK encryption ban means for IT

Natali Vlatko
David Cameron image via Shutterstock

In the wake of the Paris attacks, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed an encryption ban that would have dire consequences for digital Britain.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has made comments about his government having “the right legal framework to intercept the communications of potential terrorists” by proposing a new anti-terror law that includes an encryption ban to access digital communications. To anyone who understands the technology behind encryption, this ban would be utterly disastrous for the U.K.

Secure software in jeopardy

Cameron’s statements on Monday focused on the increasing threat of terrorism, as many western regimes consider new means to fight the online coordination of extremist attacks. However, the Prime Minister’s proposed ban on end-to-end encryption in messaging reveals his limited knowledge of how the technology works and what it would mean for banking sectors, personal data, and indeed his own government and security agencies.

Cameron argues there should be no means of communication “that we cannot read”. The proposed policy changes would leave British citizens open to having their communications intercepted by both cybercriminals and government agencies like MI5 and GCHQ. But the issues go deeper than Cameron realises.

“In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication (which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally) that we cannot read? […] Are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn’t possible to do that? My answer to that question is: No, we must not.”

To try and make an impact with this proposed anti-terror law, Cameron would need to stop Britons from installing software that comes from software creators outside of U.K. jurisdiction, according to Cory Doctorow. This would jeopardise any free/open source projects that allow users to download programs without having them tampered with.

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Sectors such as banking, security and ecommerce rely on encryption in order to operate; these industries would be significantly marginalised by Cameron’s proposal if the government follows through.

Essentially, Cameron’s regime stands to gain from a back door into tools that authorise government intelligence services to intercept every and any piece of communication that is deemed suspicious or potentially connected to terrorist activity. His plan to safeguard this process would require a hand-signed warrant from the Home Secretary for every interception that takes place, even though he himself admits that this kind of power is definitely “very intrusive”.

When you introduce a back door, it won’t just be white hats and government spies using it, and this is where the potential for disaster lies. This vulnerability can be exploited by anyone, including the very extremists that Cameron wishes to target. While his renewed interest in fighting terror online might be applauded, his pitch has failed to recognise the important part that encryption plays in the lives of his citizens.

Natali Vlatko
An Australian who calls Berlin home, via a two year love affair with Singapore. Natali was an Editorial Assistant for (S&S Media Group).

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