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Theresa May’s encryption ban would help hackers not hurt terrorists

In a depressing misunderstanding of technology, the British government continues push the idea that a ban on encryption would help stop terrorism. It would not, and worse it would put all of our private data at the mercy of the world’s hackers.

In the wake of three terror attacks on the UK in three months, the government has decided that it is the internet that is to blame rather than their own cuts to front-line policing. Indeed, in her speech this weekend where the prime minister made clear “enough was enough”, she focused her wrath on internet companies that in her mind are not doing enough to combat international terrorism.

The argument that companies like Facebook and YouTube have essentially taken up the role of publishers, and so should do more to monitor and police the content on their network, does have some merit. Facebook maybe should spend more of its profits on employing moderators for its user-generated content to weed out the groups that espouse hate, whether in the shape of Islamic terrorism, white nationalism, or any other. However, the PM’s plans for legislation are much broader, and more specifically those encrypted services like WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) or Telegram that offer their users a secure messaging platform away from prying eyes.

It is certainly true that terrorists use these secure messaging services, with Telegram a particular favourite of the peanut gallery on ISIS supporters around the world. But there is scant evidence that these apps make terror attacks any more likely or deadly. If terrorists have decided that low tech tools like vans and knives are the best methods for attacks, and often work alone, like in Westminster and Manchester, or in small close-knit groups, like in London Bridge, then digital messaging is unlikely to hold many keys.

At a time when police and intelligence budgets are already stretched, would the ability to scan the hundreds of millions of messages sent by WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, Telegram and others really be a good use of resources?

Moreover, if the UK government really wants to ban all encryption, then it is not just secure messaging that will suddenly be vulnerable to prying eyes – it would mean all bank transfers, store transactions, and all your personal data. And by prying eyes it is not just the British intelligence services that could gain access to this data, it would be any group of hackers capable of finding the specially-designed security hole. The whole internet relies on secure digital communications – and no government should even consider breaking technology to combat terrorism, which causes far fewer deaths in the West each year than the real killers of cancer, heart disease, and car crashes.

If the government was really concerned about the threat of these encrypted tools in the hands of terrorists, then maybe they should introduce legislation banning those on terror watch-lists from using apps like WhatsApp or Telegram. There is no need that the rest of us should have to risk our personal data and communications being stolen by banning encryption for all.

It is clear MI5 made some mistakes in downgrading the threat posed by the terrorists that have targeted the UK in recent weeks, but that is no excuse for the government to strip the other 99.99% of the public of their right to privacy.

Photograph by The Digital Way

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