In Great Britain on Monday, Prime Minister David Cameron threatened to ban popular messaging services like Snapchat and WhatsApp if Britain’s intelligence services were not given access to the communications.
It comes as no surprise that European politicians are using the recent terrorist attacks in France as a justification for demanding greater access to information from Internet companies.
Mr. Cameron, who has started to campaign ahead of a national election in Britain in May, said his government, if elected, would ban encrypted online communication tools that could potentially be used by terrorists if the country’s intelligence agencies were not given increased access. The reforms are part of new legislation that would force telecom operators and Internet services providers to store more data on people’s online activities, including social network messages.
“Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?” Mr. Cameron said at an event on Monday, in reference to services like WhatsApp, Snapchat and other encrypted online applications. “My answer to that question is: ‘No, we must not.’ ”
Mr. Cameron said his first duty was to protect the country against terrorist attacks.
Did you hear that, British citizens? The Prime Minister believes his first duty is to protect against terrorist attacks. I’m close to an expert on the politics of the United Kingdom, but I’d venture to guess that the constitution of the United Kingdom does not mention the word “terrorist” when outlining the duties of the Prime Minister.
The United Kingdom is not the lone European country cracking down on encrypted communications. Spanish authorities appear to have some history of opposition to the use of encrypted communications. In mid-December, eleven Spanish anarchists were arrested by Catalan police in Barcelona. It looks as if they were detained in part because of their use of the encrypted suite of secure communication tools known as Riseup.net. No formal charges have been made public at this time.
Early media reports suggested that those charged may have played a role in the destruction of ATMs around the city in 2012 and 2013, but that report hasn’t been confirmed, because the Spanish judge presiding over the case has refused to make the official police report public. However, Judge Gomez Bermudez noted this week that the defendants “were using emails with extreme security measures, such as RISEUP.net.” The defendants were also accused of having a book called Against Democracy and of having a “internal organizational and bureaucratic structures.”
Even before the terrorist attacks in France the Spanish government was throwing people in jail at least in part due to the use of encrypted communications. It is very concerning that governments are using encryption as something inherently associated with illegal activity.
If you think the war on encryption won’t come to American shores, then I have some bad news for you; the skids are already greased for legislation to be presented that would halt encryption. FBI Director James Comey has been making the rounds in Washington and serving up a healthy dose of fear mongering. Comey claims that Apple and Google’s decision to encrypt user data and communications will take the country to a “very dark place.”
It’s not only Washington that abhors encryption. NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton sees the new, encrypted mobile operating systems as a “terrible disservice to the public” due to their potential to impede police investigations. Bratton is lobbying for something equivalent to a kill switch to be installed on the phones that would allow encryption to be turned off by law enforcement.
It’s hard for me to guess how European citizens will react to the war on encryption, but many citizens in the U.S. will likely fight tooth and nail in opposition to a ban. Americans have a relatively short memory, but the revelations brought to light by Edward Snowden are still in the forefront of many citizens’ minds. Many citizens view encryption as a necessity in order to erect a barrier of protection against government snooping.
In addition, many Americans do not buy into the government’s fear mongering surrounding encryption and understand that it can help to make sensitive information transmissions more secure. Encryption is helping to make credit and debit card transactions more secure in retail stores throughout the United States. In 2014, many retailers and their customers were victims of massive credit card breaches. Americans understand that encryption is a tool that can help to make this a distant memory.
One company that will be closely monitoring attempts Prime Minister David Cameron and Parliament’s quest to gain access to encrypted data is Dublin-based business, Jumble.io. The company aims to help the public and companies keep emails and data secure from hackers and big business. The Irish company recently signed a deal with the Chilean government to sell the business worldwide by securing backing from the government’s Incubator program. The financial injection should help to launch the email encryption service with Silicon Valley players in the US in coming months.
This is an exciting time for the evolution and integration of encryption technology. Governments around the world will try to intervene and likely will succeed to some degree, but just like the War on Drugs or War on Poverty here in the US, the War on Encryption is destined to fail.