Why Theresa May’s Encryption Plans Are a Danger to Us All

houses of parliamentI realise it’s been a while since I posted something up here, so here’s an article I wrote recently for Top10VPN’s new Privacy Central site:

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 organise 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 criticised. 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.

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,” May 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.”

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 can claim to have.

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 provisionswithout 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 tough 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.

Once a provider has been ordered to create a “backdoor” in their product or service, the countdown will begin to that code going public.

It’s inevitable.

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.

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Trump on Cybersecurity – Where’s the Beef?

trumpAs the dust settles on Donald Trump’s extraordinary ascent to the White House, what do we know of his plans for cybersecurity? I’ve been speaking to a variety of experts for an upcoming Infosecurity Magazine feature and, believe it or not, the majority are not particularly optimistic of the future.

His official website, outlining the Trump ‘vision’ for cybersecurity, focuses on some easy wins:

  • An immediate review of critical infrastructure and federal cyber “defences and vulnerabilities” by a Cyber Review Team comprised of members of the military, law enforcement and private sector
  • The same team to establish “protocols and mandatory awareness training” for all federal employees
  • DoJ to create Joint Task Forces to co-ordinate federal, state and local law enforcement cybersecurity responses
  • Defence secretary to make recommendations on enhancing US Cyber Command
  • Development of offensive cyber capabilities

Doug Henkin, litigation partner at Baker Botts, said the focus on awareness raising is a positive.

“This appears to be a good development for setting a positive tone to lead from above with respect to best practices for protecting against cybersecurity threats and is also essential for corporations seeking to ensure good cybersecurity preparedness,” he argued.

“It is essential to increase training as the new administration has recognised, while also remaining vigilant to how cyber attacks occur.”

That’s pretty much where the good news ends.

It might be too early to judge president-elect Trump on his cybersecurity credentials. But it must be remembered that, despite his bluster over ‘Crooked Hillary’ and her email blunder, his businesses were found to be a whole lot worse when it comes to security. Independent researcher Kevin Beaumont scanned publicly available records last month and found many of Trump organizations’ messaging servers are running the no-longer supported Windows Server 2003 and Internet Information Server (IIS) 6. He also found 2FA unsupported, meaning user accounts are vulnerable to password phishing or brute force attacks.

What’s more, as a briefing document from think tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) tells us, Trump has promised in the past to apply tariffs against China if it “fails to stop illegal activities” and to “adopt a zero tolerance policy on intellectual property theft.”

Given what we know about China, this is a dangerous game to play. Beijing will continue to pretend it is abiding by the agreement between presidents Obama and Xi to stop state-sponsored economic cybercrime.  And that could lead to heavy reciprocal penalties on US tech firms in China, such as Apple. The state-backed Global Times has already warned China will adopt a tit-for-tat approach if Trump plays it tough.

Silicon Valley scares

Trump’s election is also a disaster for Silicon Valley. The former reality TV star has expressed support in the past for the FBI’s stance in trying to force Apple into building a backdoor to unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s phone. He even called for a ban on Apple products in response to the firm’s refusal to do so. We can therefore expect more pressure on them to undermine encryption, which would be a disaster for businesses and consumers everywhere, as well as the American tech firms themselves.

As if that weren’t enough, he’s also a big fan of the Patriot Act and will inherit a fearsome surveillance apparatus from Obama. The Democrat is already being blamed for failing to overhaul the huge encroachment on civil liberties enacted by the Bush administration. Writing in the Guardian, Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director, Trevor Timm, had this:

“What horrors are in store for us during the reign of President Trump is anyone’s guess, but he will have all the tools at his disposal to wreak havoc on our rights here at home and countless lives of those abroad. We should have seen this coming, and we should have put in place the safeguards to limit the damage.”

Let’s hope he surprises us all.