In their manifesto for the upcoming general election, the Conservatives have once again shown an utter lack of understanding about the internet by proposing plans that will undermine digital businesses in the UK.
At a time when the country is preparing for Brexit, one would think that the government would be keen to make sure that digital businesses in the UK will be able to compete with those on the continent, but that is sadly far form the truth. Instead, the manifesto is full of fear-mongering and unworkable regulations for internet companies that will prevent them from competing on the world stage.
If you read through the 88-page document [PDF], you would be left with the impression that the internet is a terrifying place designed to provide safe harbour for terrorists and help paedophiles groom young children for sex – and more importantly that only a “strong and stable Conservative government”TM can protect us from these threats.
In fact, it is behind one of these general waves of fear and mistrust on page 79 that the Conservatives allude to perhaps the most onerous of their digital plans – a backdoor to encryption.
“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.”
On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable statement – the intelligence agencies should be able to spy on terrorists as they plan attacks. The problem, however, is that the Tory plan to prevent this from happening is to open everyone up to hacking by forcing security vendors to provide backdoors to the encryption products.
Encryption is what keeps your bank details safe from criminals looking to steal your details, or to stop prying eyes from seeing the personal content you share with your husband or wife. It is also used by criminals and terrorists to try and keep their communications hidden, but banning the technology would be the same as banning cars because criminals also used them as getaway vehicles.
Government mandated backdoors into supposedly secure software poses issues not just for the end-user, who finds themselves targeted by a hacker who discovered that very same backdoor and then uses it for themselves, but also for UK software companies. Who is going to buy “secure” software, where it is near certain that there is a backdoor already built in?
Without the ability to create truly secure products, it will not be British firms that create the tools that underpin the internet of the future, as no-one will want our hackable products. When digital growth is the basis of most of the rise in GDP and jobs over recent years, this is pulling the rug out from under the industry.
The Conservative government gave itself the power to break encryption with the Investigatory Powers Bill, also known as the Snooper’s Charter, but back then it was just theoretical. It is clear they have now decided to use that power and that means bad news for the British consumer and very bad news for the British digital economy.
Photograph by Nick Webb