For the third time in three months, a terrorist attack on the streets of Britain has horrified the country and led to universal condemnation around the world.
But even whilst the doctors and nurses continue to tend to the many injured victims of this terrible atrocity, the British Government has once again turned on internet companies as a cause for this outrage.
“No ‘safe space’ for terrorists”
In a speech given in the wake of the attack, Prime Minister Theresa May said “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. We need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorist planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.”
To a cynical mind, this looks like a politician taking advantage of a terrible situation to push a long-held political agenda forward. As Home Secretary, Theresa May was instrumental in a number of laws which seriously undermined online freedom in the UK, most notably the Investigatory Powers Act.
On her watch as Prime Minister, there have now been three separate terrorist incidents and on each occasion, either she, or a member of her team have attempted to point the finger at online companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple.
After the Westminster attack in March, the new Home Secretary Amber Rudd set her sights on encryption after reports that the attacker had been using WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging service just before launching his attack.
Then after last week’s terrible bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, there was speculation that the issue could once again be brought to the fore. Indeed, in the wake of that attack, Amber Rudd again spoke publicly to claim that “progress was being made” on the issue.
But this time the Prime Minister herself has led on the issue and left people in no doubt that she plans to try and regulate the internet and ban end-to-end encryption.
Lack of understanding
Her persistence in this policy is self-defeating and also betrays her complete lack of understanding about how encryption actually works.
Firstly, removing the hard-earned freedoms and liberties of the British people in response to attacks such as these is to admit defeat to terrorism and something no right-thinking government should even countenance. It provides a motivation for such attacks to continue as terrorists can see a tangible impact from their attacks which damages the freedoms they so despise.
But then there are the many technical reasons why a ban on encryption is not possible. Inserting a back-door into encrypted communications is as good as removing the encryption altogether.
As Cory Doctorow said to ITWire.com, “If you want to secure your sensitive data… you have to use good cryptography. Use deliberately compromised cryptography, that has a back door that only the ‘good guys’ are supposed to have the keys to, and you have effectively no security. You might as well sky write it as encrypt it with pre-broken, sabotaged encryption.”
Meanwhile, the Open Rights Group made the point that such policies are likely to make surveillance of such terrorists even harder. In a blog post they described the Prime Minister’s comments as “disappointing” and said, “if successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe.”
They went on to say “the Internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this hatred and violence, but tools that can be abused. While governments and companies should take sensible measures to stop abuse, attempts to control the internet is not the simple solution that Theresa May is claiming.”
The importance of encryption
There is then the fact that encryption is vital to a myriad of different online services such as, for example, online banking, and deliberately compromising it could leave to a free-for-all for cyber-criminals at the expense of many ordinary British citizens.
Theresa May is right to want to undertake surveillance of terrorist suspects online. But she had more than enough powers to do that before the Investigatory Powers Act was passed. Since that became law, she has more powers than any other government in the free world. But still, she wants more.
It is high time, the British government began to look beyond the internet at the more root causes of these terrorist attacks; issues such as radicalisation within the British Muslim community, a weak and ineffective borders and immigration service, and a flawed foreign policy which has failed to put troops on the ground to deal with the ongoing threat of ISIS once and for all.
It is, of course, much easier to point the finger at the internet than deal with these big, and potentially expensive, political issues. But the fact remains that unless she acts like a real leader and deals with those problems, with or without her planned regulation of the internet and encryption ban, these attacks will continue.