UK's Ban on Effective Encryption a Step Closer to Reality

It looks like British Prime Minister David Cameron is closer to following through on his promise to essentially outlaw digital privacy. New proposed laws are expected to be unveiled on Wednesday designed to force Apple, Google, and other tech companies to give the U.K. government ways to decrypt personal data such as text chats under the guise of protecting citizens from terrorists and criminals.

UK law would kill effective encryptionUK law would kill effective encryption

The requirements are part of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which demand companies include systems for decrypting what otherwise would be secure communications. That includes text and video chats, email, and anything else we do on our computers and smartphones with encryption.

For Apple, that means the British government expects to have access to our iMessage chats, FaceTime conversations, and other data that's encrypted when we lock our iPhones.

Mr. Cameron is pushing Parliament and the public to support the bill, according to the Telegraph, saying, "As Prime Minister I would just say to people please, let's not have a situation where we give terrorists, criminals, child abductors, safe spaces to communicate."

The standard argument for government back doors into our computers and smartphones always falls back to protecting us from terrorism and criminals, and also child protection. By giving evil doers a way to communicate with complete privacy, they say, ensures our cities will be bombed, our homes ransacked, family members killed, and our children kidnapped.

To be fair, all of those scenarios are possible, just as they were before smartphones. Giving governments access to our encrypted conversations could prevent some criminal acts or help track down suspects, but their demands that companies create these digital back doors means anyone can access our personal data. An open security hole isn't selective; governments, as well as the terrorists and criminals they're trying to stop, can use the same weaknesses to see our private conversations and data.

Forcing Apple and other companies to provide ways to decrypt our conversations poses another problem: How to change their products to accommodate the bill should it become law.

In Apple's case, that would likely mean fundamentally reworking the core of iOS 9 to reduce overall security, and massive changes to the back-end infrastructure for services like FaceTime and Messages. Apple included security and privacy as part of the foundation of its operating system and services, and changing that would equate to throwing that out and starting over.

Apple could refuse and stop selling iPhones in the UK, but that's not a realistic option. The company would face shareholder lawsuits, and ending sales sets a precedent Apple can't follow through on. Assuming the UK passes its law, other countries will follow, including the United States and China. Apple can't simply stop selling products in its top markets and expect to survive.

In essence, the UK is proposing laws that would leave us with only an illusion of encryption, and prohibiting effective encryption doesn't serve our best interests, protect privacy, or promote security.