The European Union is swinging behind Prime Minister David Cameron’s policy to enable national governments to read all encrypted communications – at the same time that his own Conservative Party grassroots are starting to come out against the idea.
In a paper leaked to privacy group State Watch, the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union, EU counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove wrote:
“Since the Snowden revelations, internet and telecommunications companies have started to use often de-centralised encryption which increasingly makes lawful interception by the relevant national authorities technically difficult or even impossible.”
He wants the EU to have the power to force internet companies to tap their communications as part of a new strategy to combat terrorism. The paper was drawn up following the Islamist terrorist attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
He continued: “The Commission should be invited to explore rules obliging internet and telecommunications companies operating in the EU to provide under certain conditions as set out in the relevant national laws and in full compliance with fundamental rights access of the relevant national authorities to communications (i.e. share encryption keys).”
A spokesperson for de Kerchove declined to comment, according to EurActiv.
At the same time, though, the Conservative grassroots has woken up to oppose Cameron’s widely derided encryption and internet surveillance proposals – which he also put to US President Barack Obama in his recent trip to Washington DC.
Writing on Conservative Home, former Cambridge University Conservative Association officer Andrew Bower, who now works in Cambridge’s technology industry, roundly criticised the Prime Minister’s plans. “Encryption is ubiquitous in our everyday devices and the commercial services that enable them,” he wrote.
He continued: “Encryption is not just for the bad guys. The online world makes our assets and identity vulnerable. Encryption as part of a well-designed security model is essential to enabling and giving confidence to banking transactions and commerce today.
“By mobilising against encryption the government is contradicting the advice of its Information Commissioner on data protection for organisations and its own advice to the general public about being safe online.”
Bower also criticised the Data Communications Bill proposals, which have effectively been absorbed in the latest in a long line of anti-terrorism bills via a series of amendments in the House of Lords to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, tabled by four government-friendly peers.
“The latest evolution of the zombie snoopers’ charter policy reaches new heights of technical absurdity. Previously the main objections to the Communications Data Bill were based around civil liberties alongside a heavy cost to internet service providers who would need to change their business model to become arms of the state, with only relatively limited technical concerns.
“But the technical implications of the encryption ban are so wide-reaching the policy would be a joke in the technical community if it weren’t a serious proposal by a party of government,” he wrote, concluding: “This proposal is totally unworkable and cannot survive serious scrutiny. It will inevitably have to be dropped, so it would be better to drop it now and limit the damage to the reputation of our country and our party.”
The comments accompanying the Conservative Home article by Bower were also broadly supportive and critical of Cameron.
Nicholas Keen, who describes himself on his profile as a “romantic conservative”, wrote that “the government would be better-placed ensuring that the brains trust at GCHQ has the resources to understand and disentangle what is out there, and that legislation provides the right balance between privacy and the need to scan vast amounts of data traffic”.
Stuart Crow, who claims to be a “Tory”, was equally critical: “This is the latest of a series of daft, and indeed threatening, statements by MPs. It isn’t a problem unique to our party – John Mann is a particularly bad example of a Labour MP talking nonsense. This gets all politicians a reputation as technically ignorant and incompetent, which not all deserve.”
He continued: “The failure to identify many terrorists and suspects is NOT technological. It is a human failure to act on, or interpret, data already in official hands. Politicians who demonstrate their ignorance of the technical challenge merely entrench the view of people like me that they must not be allowed to impose further legislation. Or perhaps they must be got out of the hands of technically incompetent advisers?”

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