UK Government backs down in Encryption argument

Data Encryption

As regular readers will know, the recent terror attack in London led to a fresh attempt by the UK Government to target the providers of encrypted communications.  But it seems that they might be backtracking on their bold comments already.

The British Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, summoned executives from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft to a meeting last week, after it was reported that Khalid Masood, the man who carried out the London attack, was using WhatsApp just minutes before the attack took place.

Encryption meeting that wasn’t

And as we reported, there was some concern that the companies might have to give ground this time, particularly in the wake of comments from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

But it seems that Amber Rudd has been talked down on the issue after a joint statement issued by the tech companies after the meeting made no mention whatsoever of the issue of encryption.

Instead, the focus of their statement was on the issue of dealing with extremist online content and “ensuring terrorists do not have a voice online”.

The statement said that “Our companies are committed to making our platforms a hostile space for those who seek to do harm and we have been working on this issue for several years.” They went on to commit to “look at all options” to enhance and accelerate this process and set out three proposed ways to achieve this.

The companies said they would all be seeking to develop better tools to automatically identify and remove extremist content, help smaller tech companies to learn such methods and develop their own tools, and seek ways to “promote alternative and counter-narratives”.

For her part, Home Secretary Amber Rudd said that the focus of the meeting had been “the issue of access to terrorist propaganda online and the very real and evolving threat it poses.” She stated that she wanted to see companies doing more on the issue and faster, but otherwise, her statement largely mirrored that of the companies.

So, for all the hype surrounding the meeting, the outcome told no-one anything they didn’t already know and was, as the Labour Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Yvette Cooper said, “a bit lame”.

Existing encryption powers

It is not clear at this stage why encryption suddenly fell off the agenda for this meeting after all the bluster that was seen last weekend. Perhaps new information about Khalid Masood’s use of WhatsApp has come to light which is not yet in the public domain. Perhaps the Government realised it was going into battle on an issue it could not possibly hope to win.

Or perhaps, it was because the Home Secretary realised that actually she already had the powers she had demanded last weekend, but had so far proved unwilling to use them.

Because under the hugely controversial Investigatory Powers Act, the Government has the power to require online communication companies to remove “electronic protection applied… to any communications or data”.

Were it believed that making such a demand of WhatsApp was essential to national security, presumably the Home Secretary would use the existing powers she has? The fact that she hasn’t suggests that either she was unaware of the powers, or she was unwilling to use them.

The latter is quite conceivable because, as Alec Muffett of the Open Rights Group has said it would be jumping into an argument they would lose.

“Eventually they will lose the battle because they will never (for instance) coerce the global open-source community to comply,” he said. “Government time and money would be better spent elsewhere…than in attempting to combat ‘secure communication across the internet’ as an abstract entity.”

He is of course right and in failing to address the issue as promised the Government is looking both weak and ill-informed on the issue.

For internet users, it is, of course, good news that the supposed Government assault on encryption has failed to materialise. But the fact that the issue was even raised suggests a Government that is both out of step with online reality and out of touch with modern encryption technologies. Not encouraging for the people tasked with keeping the national safe and secure.

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