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Is it mad to ban encryption?
The TL;DR answer is, of course, yes. Bonkers.
The background to this hypothetical question is the significant amount of discussion lately about the UK government’s attempts to control, limit, or even ban the use of encryption. Home Secretary Amber Rudd is particularly keen on the idea of forcing companies such as WhatsApp to utilise ‘weakened’ cyphers, ostensibly to facilitate law enforcement, and “protect us from terrorists”.
There are many arguments which can be deployed in defence of the, “yes, bonkers” answer. I’ll elaborate on my top three:
1. Ban encryption? It’s pointless to try
Even if digital encryption was banned, it would still be possible for those with bad intent to securely communicate by other means: meeting in person, to pick on one extremely obvious example. The phraseology used by a number of government figures is that there should be “no safe space” for terrorists to communicate online. Well, even if that was an achievable aim, nobody is suggesting control over meetings in the real world. That really would be mad.
Banning encryption won’t cause crime to stop, in just the same way as all cars now being fitted with alarms hasn’t stopped car crime. In that case, thieves have switched to a different attack vector; car jacking, or letterbox ‘key fishing’. The crime continues, the method changes.
There is also a side point that, since criminals are criminals, they probably won’t be overly bothered about breaking one extra law if it aids their illicit activities. The only people likely to obey such a law would be law-abiding citizens. A swing and a miss.
2. Ban encryption? It’s impossible
Banning cryptography is attempting to ban maths, and potentially really basic maths at that. Unbreakable encryption between two parties is quite possible without any computer equipment whatsoever. Using a “one time pad” based technique, it’s trivial to scramble a message such that nobody can read it except the intended recipient. This coded message could be sent via SMS, or written down on a postcard and posted, or even applied to a wall in a public place, as a form of graffiti. So even a ban on what might be called “apps with encryption” definitely won’t stop encryption happening.
Enforcement of a ban would be very difficult too. With techniques such as steganography, it is possible to cover up the fact that encryption was ever used at all (or indeed that there ever was a message), by burying text within the data of an image. Emailing the holiday snaps over to your relatives? Or conveying a detailed masterplan for an attack on a major city? It would be very difficult to tell the two apart.
3. Ban encryption? “More good guys than bad”
In the modern world, strong encryption prevents much more crime than it facilitates. Online banking and shopping are now protected by high-quality cryptography. If this was to be banned, it would open the floodgates for an epidemic of online crime.
White vans have been implicated in recent terror attacks, but nobody is talking about banning them from our roads because, actually, white vans are the lifeblood of much of our retail economy. As such, it is easy for politicians to understand why banning them would be madness, actually achieve nothing in terms of terror prevention, and ruin a huge chunk of the economy to boot. What is sad is that they are not aware of just how important encryption is to what might broadly be labelled, “modern life”. If there was a greater understanding, it seems likely that crypto would be viewed in much the same way as the white van.
In a piece such as this, it would be remiss of me to not briefly discuss an all too often heard cry, “Why does it matter to me? I have nothing to hide!”. Actually, everyone has something to hide. It is commonplace for people to assume that “something to hide” means “some criminal activity”. But this is obviously not the case. Medical records, family situations, relationship details and financial information would all be regarded as “private” by a majority of people.
The “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” mentality is a toxic and immoral attitude, and should be argued against at every opportunity.