The UK’s top police watchdog has made a startling intervention into the encryption debate, calling for the technology to be regulated by government if tech companies don’t cooperate more.
The comments were made to journalists by Sir Thomas Winsor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary at the launch of his annual State of Policing in England and Wales report.
Police Watchdog who doesn’t grasp encryption
Sir Thomas, who is far from popular among police officers thanks to his review of policing pay and conditions, which saw many officers pay cut, is clearly also keen to alienate civil liberties advocates too.
He also showed a surprising lack of basic knowledge and understanding about technology for someone in such a senior role.
Sir Thomas, who is 60 years old, claimed that end-to-end messenger services are helping terrorists, paedophiles, and organised criminals while at the same time actively seeking to hinder law enforcement agencies from doing their work.
He described encryption as being little more than a means of shielding information from law enforcement and claimed that the more they failed to hand over information when requested, the more chance there is of government choosing to regulate them.
Someone who his seniority, who chooses to comment on the issue of encryption should at least have a basic understanding of what it is and how it works.
Encryption secures data and plays a vital role in countless aspects of modern technology. The idea that it is only used by criminals to hide their activities is quite simply wrong at a basic level.
And the reason most encrypted messenger services do not comply with law enforcement requests for information is that the technology doesn’t enable them to. Almost all modern day encrypted communications is done using shifting keys that even the tech company operating the service cannot access.
An attack on smartphones too
Sir Thomas then turned his attention to password protections on smartphones and other devices and cited the San Bernardino case as an example of why it shouldn’t be allowed. Astonishingly, he then went on to claim that public opinion was against companies like Apple on this issue.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of smartphone users want their device to be secure and private and many will even turn to a VPN to make sure that is the case.
When this point was put to Sir Thomas, he batted it aside by saying that any police access to private smartphone data would be subject to judicial oversight.
But of course, judicial oversight exists in many of the current Government’s intrusive surveillance regimes, and that has hardly proved an effective safeguard or indeed offered any public reassurance.
A dangerous intervention
It is deeply worrying that a man of the seniority of Sir Thomas Winsor is making such ill-informed comments about a technology he clearly doesn’t understand that well.
He is in a position where such comments could have an impact on the attitude of police and even government.
In his role as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, he is also supposed to be impartial, so it should also be raising eyebrows that he is so willingly towing the Home Office line on this issue and flying in the face of some pretty basic facts.
Perhaps one of Sir Thomas’ team can explain to him that handing an encryption backdoor to law enforcement is also effectively giving one to hackers and criminals too. It is only a matter of time before they find it.
And when they do, because encryption is so fundamental to online financial transactions, many business activities, and even critical national infrastructure, the potential chaos that would follow could be devastating.
Also, the FBI already has a tool to crack iPhone’s and if Apple improves the service, their in-house hackers will begin work to find another way in.
But for regular internet users concerned that even impartial police watchdogs are against online privacy and security, the best suggestion is to take matters into your own hands and ensure that everything you do is encrypted.
The best tool for this is a VPN, which can be installed onto any device and encrypts all your online traffic without exception.
The encryption debate will not end just because Sir Thomas Winsor has shown his hand. But more and more people of influence at taking the same ill-informed position. And while that continues, none of us can feel truly safe online.