James Ball

Priti Patel’s war on encryption is doomed

Priti Patel's war on encryption is doomed
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The modern world has an unfortunate habit of making life difficult for those working to keep us safe. For the police, security services and others, so many inventions seem to be created just to make it more difficult for them to see who’s up to no good. 

Take envelopes, for one. Envelopes make it much fiddlier to see what’s in the letters we send to one another – and they could show anything: that envelope could contain financial fraud, revenge porn, or even be plotting a murder. What is it hiding?

Modern Britain is unreasonable to state snoopers in so many other ways too. Inconsiderately we put locks on our doors, with no regard for how much more difficult this will make things if the authorities need to get into our home. We have conversations in private, without either reporting back their contents to the government or letting them record it. And outrageously, we treat all of this as if it’s just… normal.

In the offline world, we accept the existence of locks, walls and private conversations because it would be insane not to do so. But that’s what the Home Office is asking us to do with our online existences – by launching yet another new salvo in its endless war on encryption.

Priti Patel has become the latest in a long line of Home Secretaries to be lulled into pushing an idiotic agenda by her dysfunctional and sclerotic department. Relying on the popular misconception that ‘encryption' is something new and therefore scary, Patel and the Home Office plan to launch an advertising campaign which criticises Facebook for daring to use end-to-end encryption for its messages.

Encryption is the online equivalent of a lock, or of a signature. It is encryption that stops everyone in the world being able to see your card details when you buy a meal via Deliveroo. It’s encryption that makes sure when your bank transfers money for you it goes to the actual intended recipient. And it’s encryption that protects your WhatsApps, iMessages, photos and more when you send them to your friends – to the extent that even Facebook itself can’t read them.

The Home Office would have us believe that their inability to be able to read every single thing we say and do online is some glaring security risk – despite the fact they can’t even come close to doing that in the offline world. They also ask for access to data on this huge scale when they’ve proven themselves incapable, time and again, of even the simplest records management – just look at the Windrush scandal.

The big data approach of the Home Office and spy agencies doesn’t even keep us safe, even if it were somehow possible to create a magic back door to encryption that only the good guys could use (which it isn’t). For every major terror attack, the problem has been that at least some suspects were on intelligence agencies’ radar but they didn’t have the resources to monitor them, perhaps because they’d sunk too much cash into mass surveillance.

As it stands, Facebook and others can arrange to help the government tap individual, warranted accounts – it is not the total blackout the Home Office makes out. They are trying to con the public into backing their insane long-term goal, hoping that the man on the street is as gullible as their last few secretaries of state.

It was Paul McMullan, the former News of the World journalist, who famously told the Leveson inquiry that 'privacy is for paedos'. Surely even he would be surprised to see that stance become government policy.

Written byJames Ball

James Ball is the Global Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which last month launched a two-year project looking into Russian infiltration of the UK elite and in London’s role in enabling overseas corruption

Topics in this articlePoliticspriti patelhome office