Speaking to a room full of party activists in the British city of Nottingham this week, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that encryption for messaging would be banned should his party gain a majority at the next General Election on May 7th of this year.
This ban would impact not only Snapchat and any other apps that use encryption for communications, but potentially also the iPhone, following Apple’s decision to make the newer models “warrant proof”.
Just a few days after the terrible murders in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the biggest headline of several weeks of unrest in France, Cameron was speaking about the importance of his government being able to read any communication it pleased.
This was just after he marched in Paris in the name of freedom of speech.
Forget the fact that a British Prime Minister seems to be riding on the coattails of dead Frenchmen in order to get his own way; let’s look at the facts instead.
Prime Minister David Cameron Speaks About Banning Encrypted Messaging
This is what Cameron said about dealing with systems that don’t allow messages to be snooped.
“Do we want to allow a means of communication between two people which even in extremis with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally that we cannot read? My answer to that question is no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”
As you may know, self-destructing messenger Snapchat enables a message to be sent securely with encryption; once sent it is deleted securely, an action repeated on the recipient’s device.
Suspecting that Islamic terrorists will be using Snapchat or other encrypted messaging services to communicate within the UK to plan attacks, rather than using the tried-and-tested face-to-face meetings of revolutionaries and fifth columnists of times past, Prime Minister Cameron believes that this overt surveillance is an intrusion that can help save lives.
David Cameron, Master of Technology and Online Security
While President Barack Obama continues to insist that increased NSA surveillance has saved lives, there are few such attempts in the UK to make such an assertion. Perhaps the difference is the case of Drummer Lee Rigby, a young military man in Woolwich, South London, who was slain in 2013 in broad daylight, first knocked down and then executed by two men claiming to be Muslims.
As noted in The Observer newspaper, mass surveillance wouldn’t have saved Lee Rigby because his killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were already known to MI5, who already had the tools to monitor their communications.
Over the past ten years or so, increased surveillance in the UK has seen more CCTV in towns and cities, restricted access to The Pirate Bay (although this can be circumnavigated), the introduction of online censorship, and making it a criminal offence to refuse to divulge passwords to encrypted storage. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that communications in the UK are monitored by GCHQ.
Yet these steps don’t appear to have saved any lives.
How Might Snapchat Be Banned?
Short of instituting some sort of ban on the listing of Snapchat in the Android and iOS app stores in the UK, it seems quite a challenge for the British Government to be able to realistically ban such encrypted communications.
Even if listings were restricted, there would still be the option of sideloading for Android users, pretty much negating any ban. Putting the onus on the ISPs and mobile providers to manage the ban, meanwhile, would prove hugely unpopular with those organizations, especially after the introduction of opt-out censorship in 2013.
Furthermore, threatening to ban a popular app that a great deal of people under age 30 use is unlikely to endear the British PM to a vast demographic in an election year.
Still, if Cameron is looking for some tips, there are some other countries that have already placed restrictions on encryption. Presumably, those friendly nations such as Russia, China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Tunisia and Morocco.
Why Banning Encryption Is Madness
You’re probably already realising this, but we’ll spell it out. Banning encryption for a single app isn’t possible. We either have encryption, or we don’t.
With encryption we have secure online shopping, personal data kept from the eyes of criminals, secure cloud storage, and corporate and government secrets kept safe.
Since 2010, the British government has been a coalition, with the Cameron’s Conservative Party as the majority (the Liberal Democrats of Nick Clegg are the unpopular props). Cameron hopes to go solo in May 2015, forming a government of purely Conservative MPs. To do this he needs votes, and to get those he needs funding for promotion, money from big businesses, modern multi-national organizations with UK roots… all of which require online encryption in order to remain competitive in the modern world.
Encryption is vital for our online security – for shopping, sharing data, and working. These things are all vital components of modern life that face being unbuilt by a Luddite politician, seemingly unaware (or perhaps not) of all the social and economic problems that would occur as a result.
Short of implementing a new national Internet that is more extreme than China’s or Iran’s, with encryption certificates signed by the Home Office (still susceptible to man in the middle attacks) or reverting the UK to a pre-digital revolution state, there is no way Cameron’s dreams of a Snapchat-free world can possibly come to fruition.
You can see why Cameron’s plans are at best ill-thought out, and at worst… well, I’ll let you decide on your own epithet.
What do you think? Is there a realistic chance that Snapchat could be banned? Does overt surveillance stop terrorism?