Wider Encryption Considerations

An Eccentric Anomaly: Ed Davies's Blog

Yesterday I wrote some comments on the UK government's response to a petition submitted to the parliament web site on encryption. Those comments were rather specific to the general technical issues with the response.

I'd also like to make some wider comments.

First of all, there's the utilitarian consideration: is society as a whole more or less better off as a result of the use of secure cryptography unhampered by government interference? Even from a fairly narrow public-safety point of view I think it is: the amount of crime of various sorts which is prevented by good security practices would seem to me to outweigh the possible amount of extra crime which would be made possible by criminals being able to communicate safely at a distance.

More generally, safe communication at a distance is a general good which can improve the operation of society as a whole irrespective of any criminal considerations by, for example, avoiding the need for people to travel to face-to-face meetings or move physical documents around for signatures.

There's one sentence in the government response which I find particularly creepy:

There shouldn’t be a guaranteed safe space for terrorists, criminals and paedophiles to operate beyond the reach of law.

Terrorists and paedophiles are criminals so why do the government feel the need to list them separately? Partly, of course, because those criminals probably do use the internet more than many others but mostly because they want to draw attention to these potential users for purely emotional reasons.

Also, any criminal activity which uses secure communications is not “beyond the reach of the law” - it might require some investigatory approaches which are more awkward, expensive or risky but there are alternatives to just sitting in a office and reading people's email and implying otherwise must be a deliberate attempt to mislead.

It's this rhetorical manoeuvre to push people into agreement without considering whether some sort of balance is required which I find so unpleasant.

If a few people go for a walk in a open place but well away from anybody else then they are more-or-less guaranteed a safe space to converse beyond the reach of the law, at least if we're to believe the “trade craft” written about by the likes of John le Carré. So is the government asking that all private face-to-face conversations be banned? Of course not, that would be disproportionate and unreasonable almost however bad any security threat might be.

By analogy, just how bad a security threat do we have to have in order to justify banning private online communication? I don't know but I really don't think we're even close to that point.