Move over Che, there’s a new Guy in town

Iconography of protest gets a 17th century upgrade.

Whether it is used to issue ultimatums to Mexican drug cartels or for demanding economic equality in financial districts the world over, the image of Guy Fawkes has become synonymous with 21st century popular protest.

Take the cover of last week's New Statesman for instance - under the headline "Young, angry and... right?" a Guy Fawkes-masked protester stares directly at the camera; the symbol of Western disillusionment is the face of a 17th century English Catholic, executed for high-treason and popularised by the Hollywood version of an 80s English comic book. How has this come to be?

The answer lies more in events of 2006 than 1605, when Warner Brothers released V for Vendetta, a film adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name. Set in Britain in a dystopian future, the film's hero adopts the Fawkes mask in his attempt to bring down a corrupt totalitarian regime. It culminates with the destruction of the Houses of Parliament, set to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

This Saturday much of the country will celebrate Fawkes's foiling, by setting of fireworks and burning effigies of him, while protestors across the world adorn his mask.

Although some wearers of the mask are sure to be drawn to the powerful imagery of this archetypal anti-establishment figure, there are probably equally as many who just think it looks cool. After all it's not like everyone who wears a Che Guevara T Shirt is a bona fide guerrilla. Perhaps it would be churlish to suggest that the Occupy movement's association with the image is ill-advised given that Fawkes was in essence the scapegoat of a failed revolution.

And much like Che, Fawkes has seen his visage commoditised to such an extent that if he wasn't dead, he wouldn't be able to show his face among any self-respecting revolutionaries.

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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.

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