Since winning the election, David Cameron has put the Investigatory Powers Bill back on the agenda after it was blocked during the coalition. This bill also known as the 'snoopers charter' will compel a communications service provide to collect and retain data about their users. Any organisation that interacts with their users will have to keep this information, even if it's entirely irrelevant to their own business needs. The prime minister said back in January "In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” He went on; "My answer to that question is no we must not. If I am prime minister, I will make sure it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes sure we do not allow terrorist safe spaces to communicate with each other"
It's a nice idea in theory isn't it - keeping us safe. However, this isn't going to work, and in fact this bill would cause untold damage, so let's break it down a little bit. The obvious first step is going to be that companies such as Twitter and Facebook will have to record information on all of your discussions with friends, and to keep this for a period of time. What happens if they don't want to? Are they going to be banned? What about messaging services such as What's App or Snapchat? They are going to have to be banned as well. I'll come back and look at this in a moment, because there's more to come.
What Cameron really means to do is to ban effective cryptography. Now, cryptography either works or it doesn't, you can't have it working 'a little bit'. So what he wants to do is to ensure that companies would have to introduce some sort of backdoor access to their software so that the British government can take a peek if it wants to. This will not work. It won't work because if a hacker knows that there is a backdoor, it will be found - it's absolutely inevitable and it will probably take no more than hours, not even days to do this. We've seen it often enough with other 'secure' data.
Now, if a company is looking after YOUR money for example, and it cannot do so safely, what is it going to do? The obvious answer is to leave the UK, which is what Eris Industries have threatened to do. Now of course terrorists are not going to sit back and just say 'ok, you've got us' they'll start to use better encryption software, encrypt their messages and pass them back and forth across Facebook. Facebook can keep all the data that they want, but it's not going to be of any use to the Government. Consequently the government has to take control of your software to ensure that you can't do this. Logically it's got to be able to look at everything on your computer. Now, you use crypto software all of the time - just look at your browser, and when you see the little padlock symbol, that's encryption. When you check your bank details, when you order something online, when you use PayPal, that's all encrypted.
It's easy to get around of course, since you can simply install a VPN and get access to the data that you want, so the software on ALL computers would have to be redesigned to stop things like that happening - you'd need to end up with an enclosed system like iOS, with every piece of software being checked to ensure that it wasn't concealing encryption software that could be used. We then have 'state run' computers. The next step around that of course is for a terrorist to use something small and powerful like a Raspberry Pi machine. So anyone coming into the country is going to need to be searched to see if they're carrying on. They will need to surrender USB sticks to be checked to ensure that they're not bringing in illegal software. So what about their smartphones? These will need to be checked as well of course.
This brings us back to an earlier point - any software that's on a smartphone that encrypts data that moves between people is going to have to be banned, and this is where the national press are picking things up.
WhatsApp faces UK ban within weeks from the Express.
WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger ban could be just weeks away under 'Snoopers Charter' from the Huffington Post.
So let's take this even further shall we? In order to have WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger banned, they're going to need to be removed from the Apple and Google stores. Are either of these companies going to be impressed with that idea? I hardly think so. However, let's say that they agreed to it. Your phone would need to be accessed and the apps deleted. When you go abroad however to a non-totalitarian state you could re-install the software. This means that - as already mentioned - your phone would need to be checked when you come back into the UK and illegal apps deleted. Foreign visitors will need to surrender their phones, or delete the offending apps. Can you image how keen a business person is going to be with that idea, knowing that they're going to find it next to impossible to keep in minute by minute communication with their head office abroad? What about tourists? Can you see them being impressed with the idea that they can't snap pictures of where they are and what they're doing to send to their friends back home?
Next, all new apps going into the stores will need to be checked by British security services. Can you imagine how much that would delay getting material into our computers or onto our smartphones? We're going to go straight to third world status in terms of computing.
Ignoring all of that - if you can - let's look at the issue of civil liberty. What is being proposed is mass, continuous surveillance by the government. We would - in effect - have no privacy at all, and that's really something that only totalitarian regimes are inflicting on their citizens. Companies that are not keen on assisting this will in effect have to be banned from the UK; a logical conclusion being that we'd not only say goodbye to Facebook messaging, but to Facebook itself. Now, you may well say that these companies are not going to want to give up their huge markets, but equally, it's going to cost them a lot in terms of outlay to produce broken cryptography which is country specific, and their users are going to be less than impressed.
The insanity of all of this of course is that the government is going to be doing the job of the terrorists for them - making life so much more difficult in the UK. Not only that, any terrorist worth their salt is going to be able to get around these new laws with no difficulty at all. It's only the law abiding, normal computer using individuals who will suffer, because they won't know how to circumvent this. So the honest citizens will be handicapped, and the wicked will remain free to do just what they want.
No doubt that Mr Cameron will say that this isn't what he means at all, and has no intention of banning such apps or messaging services. All this will illustrate however is that he has absolutely no idea what he's trying to do, and doesn't understand the implications of what he is suggesting. Everyone else, from Tim Berners-Lee on down thinks that this is an insane, draconian and anti-democratic concept. And they're right.