The UK government has denied claims it is seeking to outlaw the use of encryption.
In an official response to an online petition against notions of a nationwide ban on data encoding methods, the government insisted that it acknowledges the importance of encryption in keeping its citizens’ data safe.
Referencing the British Prime Minister – David Cameron’s recent questioning of whether Britain should allow forms of communication that cannot be read, the petition’s author, Adrian, Kennard, argues that encryption is already an integral aspect of day-to-day online activity for individuals, businesses and the government itself.
Kennard points out that even the government’s own petition website uses SSL encryption and proposals to attempt to remove it throughout the UK would be as “pointless” as “trying to ban multiplication”. Furthermore, he highlights that banning encryption or creating backdoors would only serve to “harm law abiding citizens” without impacting initially targeted criminal activity.
Addressing the petition, which has so far gathered over 11,000 signatures, the Home Office of the United Kingdom stated the following:
“The Government is not seeking to ban or limit encryption. The Government recognises the important role that encryption plays in keeping people’s personal data and intellectual property safe online.” – Home Office
The statement went on to say that encryption remains “fundamental” to everyday internet use, acting as a barrier against cyber crime for common necessities such as online banking and e-commerce.
However, despite reassurances of avoiding the path of a blanket ban, the government remains keen on exploring alternative options to satisfy its intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
“There shouldn’t be a guaranteed safe space for terrorists, criminals and paedophiles to operate beyond the reach of law”, the statement read.
Hinting at aims to legitimise the issuing of warrants to gain backdoor access to companies’ user data, the Home Office mentioned that such techniques are a necessity for sniffing out communications between suspected terrorists and criminals.
The response also reaffirmed that existing UK legislation already requires providers of communications services (e.g. UK-based ISPs and even VPNs) to remove encryption in “certain circumstances”, allowing authorities to intercept communications whenever deemed necessary by the Secretary of State.
However, the Home Office concluded its message by underlining that the highly controversial and heavily debated Investigatory Powers Bill does not provision for banning or limitation of end-to-end encryption.
The draft bill, also dubbed by critics as the ‘Snooper’s Charter’, has been heavily criticised by pro-privacy supporters and several multinational companies.
Among leading corporate opponents is global tech giant Apple, whose CEO Tim Cook has publicly slated the proposed legislation, warning that its enforcement would lead to “dire consequences” for the United Kingdom. Cook argues that removal of encryption keys from popular services, such as Apple’s own iMessage, is not a move desired by the public.
“We don’t think people want us to read their messages. We don’t feel we have the right to read their emails.” Cook told the Telegraph. He also pointed out that recent large-scale cyber attacks on the likes of British telecom giant TalkTalk and Sony Pictures – both of which use encryption on their servers, demonstrate that intentional removal of online security would pave way for even more attacks.
Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) also pitched in to mounting criticism of the Snooper’s Charter by describing the draft bill as “harmful to privacy and security”. Christopher Graham, the Information Commission Officer, supported the argument, adding that the “constant stream of security breaches only serves to highlight how important encryption is towards safeguarding personal information.”
The government’s answer to the current petition, which requires a total of 100,000 signatures before it is forwarded for debate in the Parliament, was received in light of further news that GCHQ had developed an encryption protocol for VoIP that was deliberately ‘open to surveillance’.
Steven Murdoch, a researcher at University College London, explained in a blog post that the British intelligence agency had designed and developed the MIKEY-SAKKE security protocol, which, despite its promotion as “government-grade” security, actually offers “minimal” safeguards to its clients, and even accommodates for unnoticeable surveillance through key-escrow.