David Cameron can’t ban encryption but if he gets his way, he won’t have to

David Cameron thinks there should be no form of communication “we cannot read.” Let’s unpack the terrifying implications of that.

Last week, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, David Cameron said there should be no “means of communication” which the government “cannot read”. Exactly what Cameron’s opportunistically timed statement means is unclear, due to a combination of technological illiteracy and calculated ambiguity on his part, but what he’s implying could endanger the civil liberties not just of Britons, but millions around the world.

Many have interpreted Cameron’s statement as: “We will force all software developers to build backdoors into their services, and order them to hand over the keys.” This is immensely problematic, because there’s no such thing as a back door that only good guys can enter. Yes, in theory only good guys will know where the door is, but a security weakness is still just that, and the government (they’re the good guys in this strained analogy) don’t have a goodtrack record of handling data securely.

Even if by some miracle the private communications data of an entire country, and all of the countries it talks to, were to be handled exclusively by capable and trustworthy civil servants, there would still be no guarantee of security. FromSony and Target to the European Commission and the US federal government, petabytes of private information have been stolen in recent years, and it’s hideously naive for any government to consider themselves or their data untouchable.

Arguments in favour of mass surveillance are based on the assumption that governments are competent, incorruptible and unhackable. But that simply isn’t the case.

With the argument that governments can be trusted with our private information in tatters, some surveillance state apologists have taken to arguing that, although private data may be compromised along the way, mass surveillance saves livesand is thus beyond reproach. This is a clumsy absolutist argument, but it looks even more ridiculous when you consider that terrorists under surveillance have been able, time and time again, to carry out attacks unhindered. Even the Charlie Hebdo attacks that sparked this debate happened under the nose of a vast (and incompetent) French surveillance state.

Insecure and ineffective, Cameron’s proposals are also completely unworkable in any practical sense. To demonstrate, let’s debunk another argument commonly used to advocate mass surveillance: the false equivalence of gun control and the prohibition of strong encryption.

Gun control, of which I am a strong advocate, works because it removes the tool that enables the crime. This makes sense because guns are tools with a very limited range of applications, namely shooting people. Encryption on the other hand, is ubiquitous in modern society and has a wide range of vital legal applications — digital rights management, account security, and online banking, for instance.

Another key difference is that you can confiscate a gun. You can’t however, confiscate an infinitely replicable, widely distributed piece of software. Even if you could, it’s not that difficult to make your own encryption software from scratch. Robust backdoor-free encryption technology is and will always be free and readily available, and making it illegal isn’t going to convince terrorists to stop using it.

Cameron’s plan won’t stop terrorists then, and even if he doesn’t know this, his advisers certainly do. Critics have pointed out that “Cameron is living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks that this is a sensible idea” and while they’re right, they’re also missing the point. David Cameron is a turgid stain of a human being, and it’s tempting to see him stupid or crazy, but he isn’t. He knows this plan is unworkable, but he’s campaigning for it anyway, and if we want to stop him then it’s important for us to understand why.

The best way for us to understand the Cameron’s motivations, as is so often the case with Conservative party policies, is to follow the money.

Exact figures are classified, but we do know that mass surveillance is an inordinately expensive business. In the short term this is bad news for us, the taxpayer, as we’re footing the bill for the perpetual campaign of information warfare being waged against us. In the long term however, it may be the key to our liberation.

Much like encryption, entirely stopping surveillance is impossible. As Smári McCarthy explains:

Even if the NSA were abolished … the technological artefacts won’t be dismantled because there is no way to prove that they have been dismantled. You can’t dismantle a piece of software, you can just stop running it. But there’s no way to prove that other people aren’t still running it.

In this quote McCarthy is concerned with the NSA, not GCHQ, but he raises an excellent point. Even if we did manage to shutdown our national intelligence agencies, that wouldn’t stop the NSA, BND, FSB or anyone else spying on us. Information wars have extremely porous borders, and as a result, legislation isn’t an effective way for us to fight back.

This brings us back to encryption and economics. We can’t stop surveillance, but we can render it impossibly, prohibitively expensive. This is key. Encryption is our only real means of fighting back.

No, Cameron will never be able to entirely eradicate encryption, but if he forces tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Apple to use weak encryption or to introduce backdoors, then mass surveillance will remain affordable, and the fight against it will be set back decades.

Last year the poet Michael Rosen noted that fascism doesn’t arrive as a monster, it arrives as your friend. As a key apparatus of the fascist state, the same can be said for mass surveillance. If left unchecked, this supposedly friendly project will turn monstrous, and that’s why I’m asking you to fight it. Encrypt your devices, decentralise your methods of communication, stand up to your government and lobby the tech industry to do the same. It’s going to be a battle of attrition, but it’s an important one, and it’s one that we can win.

This piece was originally published in Abstract Magazine on 19th January 2015.