UK Election Throws Encryption Erosion into Doubt

2 minute read
| Editorial

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.

Math problems

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.

TMO has written extensively on the importance of strong encryption in keeping foreign agents and criminal hackers out of our devices, data, and communications (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).

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.

2 Comments Add a comment

  1. awh

    Let’s hope they leave it alone – but one more outrage and you can bet these technologically illiterate politicians will be braying for Apple’s head again.
    Any party making a manifesto promise to install covert video and microphones in everybody’s homes, and tag them 24/7 with GPS tracking devices, would get slaughtered at an election (you would hope). Yet that is precisely what they are proposing by mandating a back door in everyone’s software – except it’s worse, because the keys WILL get compromised.

    Imagine the scenario: another terrorist atrocity, ensuing media hysteria, and laws get passed mandating backdoors – “for all our safety, if you’re not doing anything wrong you’ve got nothing to fear,” etc etc.
    The keys get out into the wild, inevitably.
    Behind the scenes, taking plenty of time, malicious state-sponsored groups (there are none of those, right?) gain access to huge swathes of the population’s data, accounts etc.
    When the time is right, a leader (whose name may or may not rhyme with shootin’) orders a switch to be flicked and just like that, everybody in the UK or the US or wherever has no more life savings, banking transactions are made impossible, commerce ceases to function, the compensation scheme and the banking system collapses, anarchy erupts on a nationwide scale. It nearly happened in 2007/8, and there was apparently no intelligently directed, state-sponsored actors at work there, just greedy and irresponsible sociopaths. Next time we may not be so lucky.

    A couple of maniacs with guns or bombs or whatever will not bring down our civilisation – an attack on the entire financial system will.

  2. Scott B in DC

    Writing this is like writing that the United States is going to build a wall on the border with Mexico and Mexico will pay for it. Aside from the logistics would be horrendous, the law would go through a legal challenge that could make the travel ban look like this year’s NBA Finals.

    The problem in the UK is that current law and case law has defined data as speech or the written word and subject to their principles of freedom. Changes to the what amounts to the UK constitution (which is really a treaty that formed the United Kingdom) requires not only the House of Commons to vote for the measure but the prime minister of every region (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Whales, and Commonwealth territories that recognize Parliament as its governing body, which may only be Gibralter these days) to also agree. If it gets that far, the measure is sent to the House of Lords for a final recommendation to the monarch. The Lords can hold up the bill both after passage by the House of Commons and before it is sent to the Queen. Finally, if the bill gets passed all of those hurdles, then it has to have the Queen’s consent.

    Queen Elizabeth II is no dummy. To hear nearly every past Prime Minister talk about her, she is far more aware of issues and governance than most of the prime ministers that have served under her. Margaret Thatcher once said that she would never do anything without the Queen’s approval. Based on speculation from English scholars familiar with the Queen, it is likely that the Queen may not provide the final Queen’s Consent for a bill that would cause that much damage.

    British scholars who are more in tune with royal history believes that Queen Elizabeth is keenly aware of the decisions her father King George VI made during the run-up to World War II that made Britain more vulnerable than it should have been. She has worked to ensure that politicians understood history to prevent from reliving those mistakes. This is why she is so well-respected and why many feel that withholding the Queen’s Consent is a strong possibility in this circumstance.

    Now… I bet you didn’t think you would get this type of lesson in British politics!! 🙂

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