UK Prime Minister David Cameron is in the US trying to get President Barack Obama to help him stop people being beastly on the Internet. And he’s also using the opportunity to prove to the world, once and for all, that he hasn’t even the faintest idea how the Internet works.
Cameron wants to ban messaging apps that use end-to-end encryption. WhatsApp is the service that gets mentioned most, plus FaceTime and iMessage. As far as Cameron is concerned, all traffic that crosses UK wires must either be crackable in real time or contain a back door for the authorities.
We’ve been here before, haven’t we folks? Anyone remember the Clipper Chip? It gets a mention in this rather nice debate that took place on Radio Five Live. In the red corner you have the inestimable Graham Cluley (who needs no introduction) and Preston Byrne of Eris Industries. In the blue corner is Professor Anthony Glees from the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies who is a government advisor. I heartily recommend giving it a listen.
It’s quite a fight, and it brings up a number of issues. For one thing, it shows that Cameron is being advised by people equally ignorant about how the Internet works.
Cluley rightly (one might say forthrightly) raises the essential point that any kind of back door is a weakening of security. Given that we have security breaches all the time, that cybercrime and cyber-espionage are already major issues and getting worse, then any weakening of security is a disaster waiting to happen. And we wouldn’t have to wait long.
But perhaps the biggest issue is the one that goes to the heart of the Government’s cluelessness about the Internet.
They don’t control it.
Glees blithely and rather pompously insists that the Government is capable of enacting laws that would require back doors in software products.
Oh really? And how, exactly, do you force such compliance on, say, a Russian or Brazilian or Ukrainian or Icelandic or Swiss coder who hacks out a nice encrypted chat app that, of course, is downloadable by anyone anywhere?
Although it gets lost slightly in the melee, Cluley makes the point – and this can’t be overstressed – that if this kind of ignorant legislation is enacted, the only people who will have strong, unbreakable encryption will be the paedophiles, terrorists and the like?
Why? Well … and this might come as a shock to the likes of Cameron and Glees … these sorts of people don’t care about the law. I mean, when you’ve chosen terrorism as a career, law abiding tends to slip down your priority list.
And the Internet, being the global, open thing that it is, means that people who want algorithms, protocols, libraries, utilities, plug-ins and apps that take no notice of GCHQ’s desire to snoop will be able to find and use them.