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To encypt or not?

July 2017

Goodness knows who will be Home Secretary after the election.  Given that he or she will oversee our anti-terrorism efforts, let’s hope that it is someone with a better grasp of how the internet works than the current one, Amber Rudd.  To judge by the very confused understanding she showed after the awful Westminster attack in March, her grasp is pretty weak.  I wasn’t going mention it, but talking to some friends in the village since then has revealed many similar misconceptions, so perhaps I should.  

For example, one neighbour, a distinguished retired diplomat, told me that as his telephone number is ex-directory, his laptop could not be breached by hackers; a consultant surgeon said that as he uses Google, all his internet activities are private and untraceable.

This is all nonsense, of course, as I imagine readers of this column will already know, but I don’t blame my friends; they are not security experts.  The Home Secretary, on the other hand, ought to have some idea what’s going on.

So it was with growing despair that I listened to her floundering on the subject of websites in general and encrypted messages on WhatsApp in particular.

WhatsApp is a bit of software that any of us can put on our phones that allows us to type messages, send pictures or even make voice calls to other users of it.  The beauty of the system is that the messages are instant and cost nothing to send anywhere in the world, beyond the cost of being connected to the internet.  You can pick who you receive messages from, so no cold calls or wrong numbers.  It’s very popular; over 200 million messages are sent every day.

It’s secure, too; WhatsApp encrypts all messages, pictures and voice calls by using an anonymous individual electronic lock (a different one for every message) so that only the intended recipient can unlock it.  No one else can; not even WhatsApp itself, not any spy listening in; no one.

This is in stark contrast with emails (less secure than a postcard) phone calls (easy to eavesdrop) and ordinary text messages (postcards again).  Essentially, WhatsApp messages are in an envelope that cannot be steamed open and even if it were, no number of eggheads in Bletchley Park could decipher the contents.  

This is what has upset Amber Rudd.  She complained that WhatsApp and its like are providing a “secret place for terrorists to communicate”.  She says she doesn’t want to prevent encryption but she does want her spooks to be able to listen in.

This is like saying that you can lock your house up, provided you put a key under the doormat.  If anyone can listen in, then everyone might, including the bad guys, as Mr Trump would say.  If the encryption is broken, it’s broken, and we might as well not have it.

The truth is that encryption has, for the moment, overtaken the ability of the spies to defeat it, and in Miss Rudd’s view, that is just not cricket. 

Wading further into the mire, (and encouraged by an equally ill-informed interviewer) Miss Rudd said that she was going to demand that Google “take down” websites publishing terrorist materials; a noble ambition, but unfortunately Google don’t publish the websites, they just list them, and whilst they could certainly stop us using Google to find them, the sites would still be there.

It’s depressing that the Home Secretary does not understand this, and worse, pretends that she does.  Miss Rudd is not a dinosaur – she’s educated and only 53, so computers and the internet have been part of her life since at least her early thirties.  She should know better.  Perhaps we should send a delegation of tech-savvy Oldies to enlighten her.