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The Flaw In The Government’s Security Plan

13 January 2015 by Jenn Granger

David Cameron has called for a new piece of comprehensive legislation to close terrorists’ ‘safe spaces’ on the internet so they can’t talk to each other anymore; but it could actually make things worse.


What’s happened?

Following the attacks in Paris, everyone’s understandably pretty strung out, and looking for ways to help prevent future attacks. This is good. So David Cameron is trying to end private communications in the UK. This is bad.

Cameron has basically said that if he wins the election, he’ll close the “safe spaces” that terrorists might use to communicate – basically private messaging; sounds well intentioned, but this would be done by increasing the authorities’ power to access details of communications (time that it was sent etc.) and their content.

So the government would, effectively, be able to read every bit of online communication that was sent in the UK – that’s right, every embarrassing private message you send (potentially without having to ask anyone for it); and if services refuse to hand over the data, they will be banned in the UK.

Why’s it a problem?

The trouble is, not only is this possibly unethical (right to privacy etc. etc.), it’s also potentially not possible – and even if it was, it would probably make matters worse. There’s been a fair bit of backlash – both in the press and on social media – especially as the government’s reputation with regards to privacy post-Snowden could be better; Cameron said he recognised that the move is “very intrusive” but feels that it’s justified as long as legal safeguards are in place.

The coalition introduced emergency legislation last year to ensure that internet and phone companies were storing their customers’ personal communications data and letting the police see it if needed; but an attempt to extend these powers to include internet browsing history and social media sites was dropped after the Lib Dems refused.

Cameron is now saying that legislation is needed for “more modern forms of communication” as well as around “more contentious” areas; insisting that there should be no “means of communication” which “we cannot read” (to which the internet has replied, ‘Er yes, there should’.). He says it’s just for extreme circumstances and is in line with methods police already use for non-electronic communication (as they can read letters and stuff).

On the other side, in 2013 Clegg said a “law which means there will be a record kept of every website you visit, who you communicate with on social media sites” would not happen when his party was in government.

All of this aside it’s pretty hard to believe that it would actually stop terrorists; as one tweet read:

“ISIS guy 1: I know, let’s use cryptography to hide our messages!

ISIS guy 2: We can’t, it’s against the law in the UK.

ISIS guy 1: Oh, OK.”

Why the tech side would just be a shambles

The problem from a tech POV is that what Cameron would need is for software creators to put in a back door for the government to check all comms, but of course deliberately introducing a flaw into software would also make it easier for the bad guys to get in.

However, this may not be a massive problem as it’s probably not really possible anyway apparently. He would need to stop Brits installing software outside his jurisdiction (otherwise, obvys people would just start using that – whether that’s because they have sinister intentions or just because they don’t want the government all up in their personal business), which of course, is nigh-on impossible, especially as much of our security software is open-source anyway. Plus, other countries have already tried what Cameron’s suggesting, with limited success; and even if the tech was introduced, it would probably only work for new devices anyway.

What Cameron is basically asking for is that either communications travel without encryption, or that they have the private decryption keys to all of the things. Even if this was logistically possible, it’s kinda hard to imagine banks and other big targets (or anyone, really) handing them over.

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