LONDON – UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s unexpectedly poor result in the “snap” General Election last week may serve to blunt her party’s push to weaken encryption. The world’s press is understandably focused on the political and Brexit-related ramifications of the unexpected result. However, it also has serious consequences for the debate over online privacy and security.
The Conservative party’s manifesto included proposals to weaken encryption. Without a majority in the House of Commons, Mrs. May is having to do a deal with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power. Even if she’s successful, the shifting landscape means marginal and controversial topics like weakening encryption have less chance of being debated.
Legislation on interception does already exist in Parliament. However, it requires further action before it would go into force. The parliamentary mathematics will make progress on this agenda far more difficult. The Conservative Party, recovering from a bruising General Election, is less likely to fight over encryption when big issues like Brexit remain.
A new Conservative-led government could pressure the Labour opposition to support the proposals in the name of national security. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s security credentials were a key element of the fraught election campaign, and so far the party has walked a fine line between security and civil liberties when it comes to encryption.
Labour’s manifesto said it would “provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe.” It also added: “We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties”.
Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group in the UK, told TMO: “The government could well be tempted to pursue a hard line in order to embarrass or split the opposition. However, [the Conservative’s] policies are not currently safe, or sane.”
With the Labour party buoyed after a surprisingly strong showing, there is no guarantee the Conservative’s strategy would work either.
Encryption is “totally unacceptable” to Conservative Party politicians
After the bombing of the Arianna Grande concert in Manchester, Mrs. May’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, said that end-to-end encryption, as used by Apple’s iMessage and popular iOS apps such as WhatsApp, is “totally unacceptable.” Ms Rudd was reappointed after the election, and Mrs. May made similar calls when she herself was Home Secretary.
Mr. Killock said: “Attacks on encryption itself must be ruled out. These are things the Opposition can demand before a vote [in Parliament].”
In a speech at Downing Street the morning after the London Bridge attack. Mrs. May said that the Islamist ideology “cannot have the safe space it needs to breed”. She attacked major online firms such as Google and Facebook for providing just that. She called for “international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”
Most pertinently, the Prime Minister said: “We need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.”
As said, the issue was in the party’s election manifesto. The document stated: “We do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.”
Not everyone opposes encryption
It is worth noting that the only party other than the Conservative’s to mention encryption explicitly in its manifesto was the Liberal Democrats. They said they would “oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption”. In a hung Parliament even the Lib Dem’s 12 MPs can be a significant part of the Parliamentary number’s game.
The election result on Thursday turned politics in Britain on its head once again. The battle over encryption is probably on hold as a result, stalling a precedent in a Western democracy for weakening encryption throughout the world that would ultimately leave everyone more vulnerable.