Government again takes aim at encryption after terrorists shake London

News by Roi Perez

UK Prime Minister Theresa May says that technology companies are providing a "safe space" for terrorists.

Following a third terror attack on UK soil in three months, we're now witnessing a UK government which is going to war with technology, as British PM Theresa May said tech giants provided a “safe space” for terrorism to recruit and operate globally.

According to the BBC, speaking outside Downing Street on Sunday, Theresa May said: "We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies... provide."

In short, the government appears intent on breaking encryption: The BBC reports that in response to the attack, home secretary Amber Rudd said on Sunday said that “tech firms needed to take down extremist content and limit the amount of end-to-end encryption that terrorists can use”.

Last year when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) came into power, it cemented into law the requirement of technology providers to provide the government a backdoor into end-to-end encryption. However, the government is yet to detail how it plans to implement this and how it might ask for providers who are out of their jurisdictions to help them achieve this.

Meanwhile, Motherboard reports that MI5 has also previously said it uses "equipment interference" (hacking) in the majority of high profile cases, which is one way of accessing encrypted messages without breaking encryption. This means they are able to view messages before they get encrypted.

Internet security firm NordVPN got in touch with SC Media UK by email to say that it has seen “a 300 percent increase in British user inquiries since Investigatory Powers Act has been passed,” which the company claims shows that “British people are very concerned about their privacy and understand the dangers of surveillance and Internet restriction.”

So is encryption to blame?


Following the Westminster Attack, the response from the government was very similar. Speaking on BBC One's Andrew Marr show, Rudd suggested that such encrypted communication apps “give terrorists a place to hide”.

However, technology bigwigs such as Bruce Schneier have said backdoors aren't a good idea. They insist that  encryption backdoors can be stolen and misused, as demonstrated by the recent WannaCry attack which used vulnerabilities developed – and later stolen from –  the National Security Agency in America.

Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange, emailed SC to highlight this issue: “The important role of encryption in securing critical national information is well known but is easily crowded out by this scaremongering rhetoric. The inconvenient truth is that encryption makes us all safer.”

Back in March, in response to the Westminster attack, major general Jonathan Shaw, the Ministry of Defence's former head of cyber-security, accused the government of trying to "use" the Westminster attack to grab unnecessary and intrusive surveillance powers.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme at the time, Shaw said ministers are attempting to "use the moment" to push for security services having more control, despite there being only a weak case for it.

Shaw said: "I think there's a lot of politics at play here. There's a debate in Parliament about the whole Snooper's Charter and the rights of the state, and I think what they are trying to do is use this moment to nudge the debate more in their line."

Shaw argued that if the Government does push through laws to listen in to conversations on WhatsApp, terrorists would simply use other encrypted chat apps.

Is social media really a hiding place?

Companies such as Google – which operates video sharing website YouTube, Facebook and its WhatsApp chat app which uses end-to-end encryption, and micro-blogging website Twitter are all being put under a huge amount of pressure to tackle terrorism.

It's often argued that their slowness to remove thousands of accounts used to spread hatred and propaganda are helping groups like so-called Islamic State to recruit young and vulnerable individuals to go to Syria and take up arms.

Media agency VICE has previously reported the soft spot Jihadis have for photo sharing website Instagram, for example, as it allows them to show that it's not all fighting. Rather, there is a bounty of good things to be had, such houses, cars and plenty of “western” food, should they choose to join the ranks.

The BBC has recently reported that the current flavour in social media platforms for so-called ISIS is encrypted messaging app Telegram.

The BBC writes: “The move to the encrypted messaging service came after a long-running conflict with Twitter, which regularly shut down IS accounts, and some experimentation with less well-known platforms from which it was also expelled. The timing was significant because that was the moment when Telegram set up the ‘channel' feature, letting users broadcast to an unlimited number of other users – a tool that many online jihadists were quick to exploit.”

The channel feature is one which allows extremists to immediately broadcast messages to up to 1,000 users at once, so could easily be used to spread propaganda and other recruitment messages.

Essentially, social media networks are playing a game of whack-a-mole with extremists who use online platforms to get their messages out.

Speaking with the BBC, Charlie Winter of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), “acknowledges the success IS has had with Telegram.” He says, “The messaging service's action against pro-IS channels seems to be very haphazard".

However says, “The group is still most successful on Telegram but its reliance on it could come at a cost, as supporters flock to the app instead of pushing the IS message to audiences elsewhere.”

Which points out the most pertinent of the issues around this: as with encryption, if you ban one network, they will essentially just move elsewhere to communicate. And the danger is, they might then no longer communicate in ways which can be surveilled in the first place.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Video and interviews