One week on from a terrorist outrage and - surprise! - the government is trying to appropriate it to soften the ground for more crazy, draconian and illiberal laws.
Yesterday morning the Home Secretary Amber Rudd appeared on the Andrew Marr Show, and said some of the most wildly stupid and poorly informed nonsense since the last time a politician opened their mouth on the topic of technology.
In short, Rudd effectively called for a ban on encryption - and “refused to rule out” (as they say) new legislation to make it happen. Because just like the service’s billion other users, Westminster terrorist Khalid Masood used WhatsApp.
As if this didn’t have anyone who even slightly understands how computers work looking quizzically into their cornflakes, she then destroyed any credibility she might have had by referring to how the people who understand the “necessary hashtags” should step up in the fight against terror. #FAIL.
This isn’t the first time that the government has attempted to try and wade in and argue that encryption is bad. Breaking encryption was originally pitched as part of the draconian Investigatory Powers Act, but mercifully the provision was removed before the act became law.
But annoyingly, now that Rudd has apparently summoned tech leaders for a meeting this week to berate them, it means that once again we need to re-rehearse the reasons why breaking encryption would be a really fucking stupid thing to do.
1) Security Is The Backbone Of The Internet
It’s hard to overstate just how important encryption is to making the internet work. Whether you’re logging into your emails or buying stuff online, the little padlock in the corner of address bar is a line of defence against your data being intercepted. What makes it strong is that the contents of whatever you’re looking at is encrypted end-to-end: So that only you and the person or service you’re communicating with can see the contents.
Now imagine if the government mandated that companies should include a backdoor so that they can see what’s going on. In an instant, this would break all security. There’s no such thing as a back door which would only let the good guys in. This means that suddenly your WhatsApp, your Amazon, your online banking - your entire digital life - is suddenly open to new threats like identity theft, fraud and spying. Sadly Rudd isn’t the only MP (by a long way) to not quite grasp this. Perhaps the most ludicrous example was this tweet by Tory backbencher and womens-bodily-autonomy-denier Nadine Dorries
Does Amber Rudd really think the threat posed by one crackpot on Westminster Bridge outweighs the threat of, say, fraud on a massive, or Russia or China being able to monitor literally all of our communications? It’s almost hard to articulate a picture of a society where encryption isn’t a thing. Because it is so obviously ludicrous - and it would render the internet useless.
2) It Would Be Impossible To Implement
So say the government managed to ban encryption, or insist on backdoors. How would it actually work? Would Facebook, a global firm with interests all around the world, really be willing to build a backdoor for the British government? Would Google? Would Amazon?
Perhaps, as the Snowden NSA disclosures revealed, some of the largest companies would. But how would this stop individual users encrypting their own content? How would it stop people downloading messaging apps that offer encryption and making the switch?
If a terrorist is willing to die for their cause, they’re probably willing to go the hassle of signing up with a new messaging service.
And this is before you consider how the government would actually go about detecting who is using encryption, as by definition encryption makes it difficult to find that out.
And finally on this point, let’s imagine that the government carved out some exceptions in a bid to make the law a little bit saner. For example, say they allowed encryption using online shopping but banned it in messaging apps. This sounds like it might work in principle, but in practice you’d just end up with the eBay’s messaging system that connects buyers and sellers becoming a stand-in for WhatsApp.
3) Terrorists Would Just Make Their Own Encrypted Apps
Let’s imagine that the government manages to get over breaking the laws of mathematics and common sense, and passes a wildly draconian law that enables it to ban any apps used by terrorists.
Then, umm, what’s to stop the bad guys making their own encrypted messaging apps?
This isn’t even hypothetical - in 2015 it was revealed that ISIS has made its own encrypted messaging app, called “Alrawi”.
Sure, you can’t simply head into the Google Play store and download it, but “side loading” it on an Android device would be trivial for any would-be terrorist, due to the way the Android operating system works.
Essentially, it is literally impossible to prevent anyone determined to do so from using encryption. And it isn’t like passing a law is going to make terrorist who is willing to kill people stop and examine their conscience as they consider the ethics of breaking this hypothetical encryption law.
4) Civil Liberties Are Important
Another obvious reason why moves on encryption would be the quaint notion of “civil liberties”. Why should the government be allowed access by default to our communications? Given that in this century our digital lives are our entire lives, wouldn’t it be weird to allow access to everything about us?
The most frustrating aspects of the on-going surveillance debate is how short-termist politicians are. Rather than work to build strong institutions that can protect our rights and interests, politicians from all parties seem happy to ignore potential future problems for some perceived quick fix.
Sure, being able to access WhatsApp might solve some short term problem - the classic “bomb ticking” situation that Jack Bauer might recognise. But shouldn’t we worry about what a future government could do with the tools we enable. You might trust Theresa May to not turn into a crazy authoritarian dictator - but how can you know that you’ll trust her successor? Or the Prime Minister in 50 years time?
In an age when Donald Trump can appear from nowhere and suddenly take power - can we really bet that the authorities will use massively pervasive surveillance powers responsibly in the future? This is what Edward Snowden calls “turnkey tyranny”. You’d think that this is something that history graduate Amber Rudd might appreciate.
5) It Wouldn’t Actually Stop Terrorism
And finally… the elephant in the room. The government getting access to WhatsApp or any other online service would not actually stop terrorism. Yes, the Westminster attacker used WhatsApp. But he also used a car and a knife. And weirdly, no one thinks that we should ban cars. In fact, just days after those tragic events the government re-opened Westminster Bridge, meaning that every day thousands of potentially lethal cars are thundering past Parliament once again. Why aren’t we freaking out about this security vulnerability?
Blaming WhatsApp for terrorism is exactly the same as how some arseholes blame Muslims: It’s wrong, it’s wildly inaccurate, cracking down would be massively counterproductive, but hell, it’s politically convenient to do so.
C’mon government, just because you want to be seen to be “doing something” doesn’t mean you should do something that’s really fucking stupid.