ENCRYPTION: Can the Government Ban It?


Leave it to the government to take away the backbone of the technology industry.

Whenever the terrorist threat is increased, as it has been since the tragic events in Paris last week, so too are the calls from politicians to increase the powers of the people they employ to protect the public from such threats.

Those agencies can only do their job, the argument goes, if they have full access to the online chatter of those planning terrorist atrocities.

As the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron put it in a speech this week – there should be no “means of communication” which “we cannot read”.

But in an era when communication takes many forms, and with the added problem that much of this communication is encrypted, how easy is it to turn this sound bite into reality?


For Mr Cameron the answer lies in a new “comprehensive piece of legislation” that will close the “safe spaces” used by suspected terrorists.

So what are those safe spaces?

Although Mr Cameron doesn’t name any, it is likely he is referring to new apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat which allow people to chat with relative anonymity by keeping their services encrypted.

But the battle is much more wide-ranging as established names such as Google and Apple promise to do more to ensure that encryption is used as default on their services. After the revelations from whistle-blower Edward Snowden about mass surveillance programs, firms are determined to be seen to be putting the control of their data back in the hands of consumers.

In the past, governments with the appropriate warrants could go to firms such as Apple and ask them to unlock the communications on phones.

The iPhone 6 is encrypted by default and Apple cannot open it for anyone

No more. Apple has changed its infrastructure to make it impossible for it to hand over any data from the iPhone 6’s iMessage service, for example.

Such military-grade lock-down of devices inevitably terrifies governments so it should come as no surprise that they are fighting back with new legislation.

Although, it should be noted, that the new legislation Mr Cameron referred to in his speech is probably just a resurrection of an old law.

The Draft Communication Bill of 2012, dubbed the “snoopers’ charter” by critics, aimed to extend the range of data that communication companies had to store for 12 months.

It would have included, for the first time, details of messages sent on social media, webmail, voice calls over the internet and gaming. Officials would not have been able to see the content without a warrant but the bill was blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Politics continues to dog attempts to revive it with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg saying after Mr Cameron’s latest speech that his party will continue to oppose any such legislation.

Read more: BBC

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