Cameron considers EU referendum

The prime minister has said he might hold an EU referendum.

David Cameron has said that he might call for a referendum on Britain's relations with the EU if it demands more powers.

Cameron is under increasing pressure from Tory backbenchers to hold a referendum as the eurozone crisis proceeds. He said, in an article for the Sunday Telegraph, that he would need "the full-hearted support of the British people" for a decision:

The fact is the British people are not happy with what they have – and frankly neither am I. Put simply, for those of us outside the eurozone, far from being too little Europe there is too much of it. Too much cost, too much bureaucracy, too much meddling in issues that belong to nation states or civil society or, indeed, individuals.
Whole swaths of legislation covering social issues, working time and home affairs should, in my view, be scrapped.

Douglas Alexander told Sky News that the conservatives were confused about Europe. He said:

It’s extraordinary. In the space of 24 hours we have the Telegraph saying that Prime Minister has ruled a referendum out and now he’s ruled one in – it’s a shambles. What we heard from William Hague this morning is that there’s been no change in the Government’s position.

They are now sending out senior ministers to explain a confused government policy, but what should worry us all is that the motivation for the decision doesn’t seem to be the future interests of Britain but the present difficulties of the Prime Minister.

William Hague said on the Sunday BBC Marr show that the government position had not essentially changed, but that there was a new debate over EU membership.

David Cameron, Photograph, Getty Images
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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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