What Real People Want: A Guide For The Home Secretary

Ever since last year’s debacle between Apple and the FBI, politicians around the world have been lining up to take shots at tech companies over their stance on end-to-end encryption. UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd reignited the debate over the summer with an opinion piece in The Telegraph, in which she claimed that in effect, ‘real people’ don’t value encryption.

Ms Rudd initially pressured popular messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp to stop using end-to-end encryption – and was widely criticised by the tech community for it. Yet her comments in The Telegraph indicate that she hasn’t taken the time to learn even the most basic facts about encryption since she began her tirade against tech companies. She’s even vastly misjudged the public’s priorities on this issue.

Getting the facts straight

By pressuring tech companies to insert encryption backdoors into their software, Ms Rudd demonstrates a disturbing lack of awareness on the importance of encryption. Encryption is in fact fundamental to the success of the British economy, from banking to trading and eCommerce – and WhatsApp et al are just the tip of this iceberg.

Ms Rudd doesn’t seem to understand that encryption isn’t something that can simply be applied or removed as needed. The nature of effective encryption dictates that breaking it is impossible without a backdoor that would leave systems just as accessible to cybercriminals as to law enforcement. This isn’t ‘theory’, as Ms Rudd suggests, but mathematical fact. Given the extent to which British businesses rely on encryption for online commerce – not to mention the fact that there’s no evidence that removing it will make us safer – Ms Rudd’s comments should be deeply concerning.

What real people want

Ms Rudd writes: “Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family”? “Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and ‘usability’, and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie… Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.”

She’s not alone in her views – her predecessor helped author the Investigatory Powers Act, which allows the government to compel communications providers to remove “electronic protection applied … to any communications or data“. Yet unfortunately for the UK’s current leadership, the general public – a group that presumably meets Ms Rudd’s definition of ‘real people’ – don’t support the government’s position.

A recent study demonstrates this. Canvassing the opinions of more than 1,000 British citizens on initiatives that would grant governments more access to private data, the study found that the vast majority of the respondents disagreed with the use of encryption backdoors. Moreover, many respondents did understand the full extent of the threats these backdoors would bring to their privacy and personal data.

For example, less than a quarter (24%) of British consumers actually believe that the government should have the ability to force citizens into handing over their personal data, with just one in five (19%) agreeing that the government should be able to coerce the tech companies into sharing data without consumer consent.

It’s worth noting the study also found that nearly half of respondents thought they would be safer from terrorists, should the government be able to access encrypted personal data. More to the point, just a quarter of respondents agreed that the government’s ability to access encrypted data would benefit cyber criminals. Yet despite this evidence that some of the public don’t have a good understanding of the impact of encryption backdoors, the overall lack of support for the government’s WhatsApp witchhunt demonstrates that ‘real people’ clearly put a great deal more value in end-to-end encryption than Ms Rudd suggests.

A global perspective

Ms Rudd is unlikely to be the last politician to take a swipe at WhatsApp and other tech firms that use encryption to protect consumer privacy. Just last month, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made the bizarre claim that the laws of Australia trumped the laws of mathematics in a critique of the tech companies’ stance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, US President Donald Trump isn’t a fan of encryption either – he even called for a boycott of Apple products during his campaign.

Aside from the unsettling notion that government clampdowns on encryption are a tactic straight from the despot’s playbook, the position our leaders appear to be taking is deeply flawed. Not only is breaking encryption a threat to the global digital economy, but the facts show that it doesn’t even have public support. Not for the first time, Ms Rudd would do well to learn the fundamentals of encryption before making such dangerous comments.

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