Yesterday the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was right to say that Britain would not be cowed by the terrorist attacks last Wednesday. Nor would we accept terrorism as an inevitable fact of life.
We must always be mindful against encroaching on traditional British liberties which protect the citizen against the state. We must be equally mindful that 21st century terrorists use 21st century tools, not those of the previous century or decade. Our laws and techniques to combat terrorism must keep pace with the tools of terror that threaten our safety.
The Home Secretary raised examples of intercepting information from past generations: steaming open envelopes or listening in on phones. To these I would add earlier examples such as invisible ink, rotor cipher machines and even Roman-era alphabet shift ciphers! Cryptography has been a fact of life for thousands of years.
Anti-Terror Powers must be balanced against civil liberties
This Conservative Government has taken strong steps to combat terror. The Investigatory Powers Act amended 11 previous Acts to bring them into line with recent court orders. The whole process sought input from civil liberty charities and the technology community to ensure that our security arrangements would be acceptable to all stakeholders.
We should never forget that the purpose of these powers is to prevent, as far as possible, terrorism, such as that we saw on Wednesday. Earlier this month it was disclosed that 13 terrorist attacks have been stopped in less than four years – more than one every 4 months.
The technology community has been enormously helpful in this regard. Though careful of retaining the integrity of their operating systems they have also co-operated with the Government in its duty to keep the country safe. They have been a shining example of a socially responsible industry.
It is precisely for that reason that the Government should listen very carefully to the response that the tech community made to some interpretations of the Home Secretary’s statements relating to end-to-end encryption on Sunday.
Banning a technology does not banish it from existence. Encryption is simply the application of mathematical knowledge and banning encryption is akin to banning mathematics. In the digital age I think that most people would agree that trying to ban information is a futile gesture.
Encryption keeps our data safe
Most people realise that encryption isn’t a shady tool used by people with criminal intent to hide up wrong doing, though I feel that the majority of people underestimate the degree to which our modern digitally-engaged society relies on encryption.
People without criminal intent also frequently wish to encrypt information or keep details safe. This isn’t just about personal privacy, but also keeping credit card details safe from fraudsters when doing something as commonplace and routine as buying the weekly food shop online. Yes, private messaging apps rely on encryption to exist, but the range of online activities that the average Briton partakes in that relies on encryption to exist is so much broader than that.
However, it is not just that requiring a backdoor would be economically irresponsible. The banning of end-to-end encryption would also make Britain less safe.
A back door is an open door to all
It is impossible to create a ‘backdoor’ that only the government can use. Something is either encrypted or it is not. A ‘backdoor’ would create a systematic Achilles Heel in the security of every online application. This would paint a target on the UK for every cyber hacker and fraudster. Would you shop online if you knew that your payments weren’t secure? Or send private messages to your loved ones if you knew that they could be intercepted?
Conversations are a two-way street and the tech community should continue to be an assistive partner with the Government in making the UK safer rather than jump on every interpretation of every statement that the Government makes.
I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary clarified that she wishes to work with the technology community rather than against it in the fight against terror. This wise approach is the only way that we will be able to ensure a safe cyber-space against both terrorists and cyber criminals.
We already require companies to retain records for the Government’s use in combatting terror. A year ago I encouraged the Government to use the Investigatory Powers Bill as an opportunity to update those requirements but to resist the urge to take any knee-jerk reactions that would have retrograde effects, such as banning end-to-end encryption. Thankfully, that is precisely what the Government did in the Bill.
A year on, my advice is no different: let’s embrace encryption, not ban it.
- Adam Afriyie is the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Ghana.
- He has a strong background in science, technology and innovation.
- He is currently Chairman of the Fintech APPG, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) and President of the Conservative Technology Forum (CTF).
- He was Shadow Minister for Science from 2007-2010 and has a background in the information services and technology sector.
- He is Patron of the Parliamentary Space Committee (PSC) and was Chair of the PSC between 2010 and 2015.
- Adam has previously written about proposals to ban encryption in the Telegraph Online which can be found here.