Encryption is being exploited by terrorists to help promulgate their horrific, vile, and fatal ideology. If we don’t do something about it now, it has to potential to do much more damage. Enoch Powell told us that “the supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils,” and whatever your views on Powell, it’d be hard to deny this tautology. And we must also accept that terrorism can’t be nihilistically or complacently accepted or deemed ‘someone else’s problem’. After the appalling terrorist attack here at home on London-Bridge in July 2017, Theresa May adopted a new, more assertive, tone to help us tackle terrorism, stating that “enough is enough”. And she’s right.
And following the second terrorist attack in Westminster, so very close to home, in August, it’s time that we take action now. We don’t have another year to wait to pass the necessary legislation–we need to act NOW.
The Prime Minister conceded in 2017 that terrorism is almost becoming a normal part of everyday life and that urgent action is needed. Indeed, whilst the Conservative-2017-manifesto was far from perfect, one notable inclusion can be found on p.82, which states that “we disagree [that] it is not for the government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet”. But at the same time, it acknowledged that “the internet is a global network” and so it would be an international-agreement that is necessary to deal with it. But we should be careful not to make it seem unduly intrusive, like Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Bill, which was dubbed a ‘Snoopers’-Charter’ and a ‘What’sApp ban’. Similarly, despite the virtues of the ‘nothing to hide then nothing to fear’ argument, as MP Richard Graham found out, it is a phrase which is attributed to Goebbels.
The case for banning encryption, whilst controversial/manifold, is patent. But we must be careful: we mustn’t set out to ‘ban technology’: that would be a horrific attack on personal-liberty. But banning encryption is not to ban technology, so long as the internet giants such as Twitter and Facebook agree to cooperate. It could be as simple as them agreeing to remove encryption from social-networking-platforms. And that would not affect people’s privacy: it wouldn’t mean that acquaintances can access your private messages without your permission. It would merely be for government agencies such as GCHQ have access, should they manage to obtain a
This would enable them to access messages with information that would enable them to foil more terror plots, and prosecute prospective-terrorists by being able to use this information in court. Amber Rudd wrote in an article in July 2017 that “Nearly every plot we uncover has a digital element to it”. And it supposedly doesn’t take a technological expert to access magazines and resources similar to Inspire. Indeed, in just the 2 months after the Manchester bombing in May-2017, Whitehall sources confirmed that 5 terrorist-plots were foiled. This is a substantial increase, considering that in the 4 years and 2 months from Jan2017, just 3 terror attacks were foiled. And we can only but guess how many more terror plots are still waiting to be discovered, but won’t ever be because they are sitting in the labyrinth of dark corridors somewhere on the internet, inaccessible to the authorities.
However, the impracticalities of a ‘ban’ should also be noted: firstly, if encryption were banned, it could open the door to hackers. Whilst a form of encryption which can be decrypted by the government but not by hackers would be ideal, it doesn’t exist: if it can be decrypted by any third-party, including as the government, hackers can decrypt it too. This could put your messages, but also credit-card details and other confidential information at risk. This solution, whilst preferable, is impossible: it would be to call for encryption which hackers can’t decrypt but the authorities can. But ‘decryptable encryption’ is nothing short of a paradox.
As advocates of Thatcher’s libertarianism (including myself) may say, a ‘ban’ would be too authoritarian. But, Thatcher didn’t say we should adopt absolutist-libertarianism. Indeed, she said that if people can not obey the law, they should not expect freedom.
Additionally, it is also mathematically impossible. Due to the sheer number of permutations and combinations, it wouldn’t be feasible. The Caesar cipher could be made more complicated, and even Da Vinci’s mirror-writing could constitute encryption. Therefore, banning one form of encryption would just lead to an increased use of another form. This could be a slippery slope that eventually leads to school-children being banned from emulating Da Vinci’s mirror-writing in school.
But in conclusion, whilst a ban would be a means to of foiling a plethora of terror plots, it’s impractical and difficult to achieve. Instead, an international-treaty and negotiation with the tech giants to incentivise them to allow government surveillance. Perhaps allow encryption for credit-card details, but not for messages. And the metadata (the who, what, when) should be more accessible to authorities. But either way, the message is clear: action is necessary. Something needs to be done. And it needs to be done NOW. But it is also worth recognising that Rudd is an excellent Home-Secretary, and isn’t ignoring the issue. Remember, the job of a politician is not to be popular, but it’s to do the right thing. Thatcher wasn’t by any means a popular person, but she did what was right and saw it through with conviction. And that’s what should happen here. To reuse Thatcher’s words, it’s no good thinking that we don’t need to do anything about it because ‘someone else’ will pay the price, because that someone else is ‘you’.