UK Home Secretary doesn’t understand encryption but says she doesn’t need to

Britain’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who remarkably this week has been tipped as a possible future Prime Minister, has made yet another ill-informed intervention into the ongoing debate over encryption.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, at a Fringe event entitled ‘on responsibility in the internet age’, Rudd remarkably stated that she didn’t need to understand encryption in to regulate it. Which ironically seems pretty irresponsible of her.

Hostile ignorance

In response to a question about whether politicians needed to understand technology, she gave a hostile response saying “It’s so easy to be patronised in this business… But I do feel that there is a sea of criticism of any of us in politics who try and legislate in new areas – who will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right.”

She then went on to say “I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping – end-to-end encryption – the criminals. I will engage with the security services to find the best way to combat that.”

It is an astonishing admission by a senior government minister with responsibility for online regulation, that she doesn’t understand how encryption works. It is far from the most complicated of technical innovations and does beg the question if she can’t wrap her head around that, how on earth can she handle the myriad of other highly complex issues, including national security matters, which come across her desk.

Blaming the tech companies again

Rudd has spent much of this year having a go at tech companies for not providing the UK Government with data that they themselves do not have access too. In particular, she has been quick to jump on the back of the three major terrorist incidents that have taken place in the UK this year, in Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge.

She was at it again at the same event, as she accused them of helping terrorists and paedophiles in their crimes. “there are other areas… to do with metadata… [where tech companies] could help and we don’t get that help,” she explained. She went on to say there was “much more” messaging services could do pleaded with the companies to “work with us”.

“We are saying [to] companies who provide this encryption, take some responsibility for what is happening on your platforms: you have designed a platform that is now available out there which allows terrorists, paedophiles, murderers, to communicate with each other. Help us around the edges of it so we can lawfully… access information and keep people safe.”

The only thing that was revealed in these comments, is that she is correct. She really doesn’t understand encryption.

Encryption 101

At the same time as Rudd was making more silly comments in Manchester, at the IP EXPO 2017 were trying to explain the issues in terms that even she should be able to understand.

The Head of Security Research at Trend Micro, Rik Ferguson, told a security panel event at the conference that attacking tech companies for their encrypted communications was “the same as saying car manufacturers are helping terrorists by making cars [that are used to stage attacks].”

Mikko Hypponen, the Chief Research Officer at F-Secure went even further saying that politicians were getting bad advice before going on to comment, “You can’t put the encryption cat back in the bag and you can’t un-invent it.”

Not everyone in the Home Secretary’s sphere of influence can be as ignorant about encryption as she is. As we have recently reported, two former UK intelligence chiefs have recently spoken out in support of encryption. There must be others who understand it in her inner circle.

But for now, the message is clearly not getting through and although the Government has not yet attempted to legislate on the issue, as long as Rudd keeps banging on the door like this, the industry and British internet users will continue to be worried.

Remarkably, despite Rudd’s evidence failings in her role, her stock within the Conservative Party continues to grow. This says a lot about the talent levels at the top of the party, but more worrying means that she is unlikely to be reshuffled out of role anytime soon. And if she is, it could be for a move higher up the ladder. And it doesn’t bear thinking what might happen to our online freedoms if that ever happened.

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