David Cameron unveiled new plans to combat terrorism today, by cracking down on encrypted messaging; threatening the existence of popular instant messaging apps SnapChat and WhatsApp; as he revived the controversial ‘snoopers charter’.
The Prime Minister promised “a comprehensive piece of legislation that does not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other”1. Any messaging service that could not be accessed by state security services; with a warrant from the Home Secretary; would fall foul of the new laws.
There are a number of grounds on which to oppose this. Firstly, the solid libertarian moral argument: private communications between free individuals are none of the government’s business. Going down this road would put the UK in the company of such freedom-loving states as Russia, China and Iran, which all practice encryption control2.
Secondly, the Prime Minister is attacking a hydra. The internet is always changing and evolving. New apps appear every day. I guarantee within minutes of the law being passed, some enterprising bright spark out there will have found a way around it. Just like they did with file sharing3.
The measures would threaten any form of online activity that involves encryption. Internet banking and online shopping services would be forced to use only those forms of encryption security services can crack.
With hackers and cyber crime constantly in the news, is there anyone out there who doesn’t think it the least bit dangerous to force companies to lower their security standards?
And of course genuine terrorists will move onto other forms of communication. Even if GCHQ could trawl the entire Internet, our would-be murderers can always resort to talking in person. Or writing letters, assuming the government has no plans to open our post.
Obviously the vast majority of WhatsApp users have nothing to do with terrorism. It would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. And the most disturbing things most SnapChat users send to each other are pictures of each other’s genitalia.
This is by no means the first time a government has responded to terrorist atrocities with well-meaning but heavy handed security measures. The last Labour government increased detention without trial to 28 days (they wanted 90); introduced control orders that are tantamount to house arrest; and allowed police to question suspects after they had been charged4.
And those who oppose the current ‘snoopers charter’ would do well to remember Labour’s attempt to create a ‘single source of truth’ on every citizen via it’s insidious database state5.
These infractions are always justified on the grounds that there are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we need to cast a wide net in order to catch them. But in doing so we have become a nation of suspects increasingly devoid of our ancient liberties.