Charlie Harvey

Why breaking encryption to stop terror is a monumentally shit idea

I have a confession to make. I use strong crypto. There I’ve said it. In the opinion of some that makes me a terrorist. I also drink water. I have heard terrorists do that too. GCHQ doughnut. Used without permission from their website. Because fuck you

UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, would certainly like to be able to read everything I ever write. He isn’t a fan — of me or of the right of human beings to privacy. The right of the UK government to privacy, well, that’s a different matter. Consider his reaction to the breaches of international and European law that have been revealed by Edward Snowden.

Cameron’s proposal is a demand that we use broken encryption to power the internet. That is a shit idea.

The problem with broken encryption, and there is a clue in the phrase, is that it is broken

You see the problem with broken encryption, and there is a clue in the phrase, is that it is broken. I realize that this may seem like a complex technical point. So let me elucidate.

If the government can break my encryption, then it is almost certain that other governments can too. That means that any state can read the content of my communications. Not just "good" governments. Not just governments for that matter. And not just my communications but everybody’s.

Sooner or later someone with access to the master key will part with it, whether by omission, or by commission or just good old monumental fuckup.

And then any sufficiently determined person would be able read anything that anyone in the UK sent over the internet.

Let’s see. We wouldn’t be able to do e-commerce or online banking or flirt with our significant others in private. I wouldn’t be able to send passwords to colleagues. We could not collect personally identifiable information of any sort online. Because the encryption would be broken.

As Cory Doctorow points out, UK companies wouldn’t be able to produce secure software, academics wouldn’t be able to do security reasearch meaning GCHQ’s pipeline of cryptographers would dry up. Visitors to the UK would have their phones confiscated at the border. We would have to ban Free and Open Source software, effectively crippling our onlline sector.

Maybe Cameron is some sort of anticapitalist mastermind intent on destroying the UK economy, I don’t know. It certainly looks that way.

Oh yes and the terrorists would, of course, start using non-electronic forms of communication; this is already the case with many terror groups. So beyond destroying our right to privacy and wrecking a big lump of the UK economy, breaking encryption would also fail to achieve its stated aim.

I don’t at all want to belittle the horror of last week’s attacks in Paris. Nor those that Cameron’s (and Blair’s) governments continue to carry out on civilian populations across the world. But broken encryption is broken. Breaking encryption will not stop terrorism, but it would create a more fascist, less free society and cripple the economy into the bargain. Not what we computer people would call a good trade-off.


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