Cameron's judgement remains the issue

The PM seems to think loyalty to an ex-colleague is an intrinsic virtue.

One small but revealing moment in David Cameron's press conference earlier today: when he was asked whether he was warned about specific problems in Andy Coulson's past he said he couldn't "recall" being told. A warning light should go on any time a politician uses that formula. It is neither a denial, nor is it an acknowledgement. It is a holding device that says, in essence, "I don't have a line on this yet, my lawyers have told me to say nothing."

The main impression most people will get from that press conference is that Cameron wanted to deflect this whole story away from questions about his judgement. He failed. In the process he left hostages to fortune. All of those references to his personal friendship with Coulson will be problematic if there is a trial and conviction. Cameron seems to think loyalty to an ex-colleague is an intrinsic virtue here. He said you'd have to be a "pretty unpleasant" person to casually drop an old chum.

But brutally cutting off someone who is damaging you is exactly what a politician in Cameron's position should be doing right now. That's the way it works. People won't respect him for staying loyal, they'll see him as part of a clubbish, mutual back-scratching conspiracy.

The attempt to scatter some of the blame around with references to the Blair era, Bernie Ecclestone's money, dodgy dossiers etc, was also pretty off-key, I thought. It sounded desperate, as if he wanted the whole of politics to take some of the heat when clearly the specific question of whether Coulson was an appropriate person to have running the government's communications operation cannot apply to anyone but the man who gave him the job.

What isn't clear is how much of the public anger over hacking will attach itself to the politicians who failed to get to grips with the issue. The principle villains are still the hackers themselves and the media bosses who tried to cover their tracks. Up to a point, all politicians stand accused of complicity. But the danger for Cameron is that, through the Coulson connection, he is associated in the public eye as part of that reviled media-boss class much more than anyone else in Westminster. He risks becoming the emblem of a corrupt power dynamic. With his press conference today he only made that more likely.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496