Tory ministers bid to revive the snooper's charter after Woolwich attack

Theresa May is "determined" to act to give the police new powers to monitor internet use.

All too often in recent history, governments have used terrorist attacks as a pretext to further erode civil liberties, so David Cameron was rightly commended for his declaration yesterday that there would be no "knee-jerk" response to the events in Woolwich. In the hours after the murder, John Reid, the former Labour home secretary, Lord West, the former security minister, and Lord Carlile, a Lib Dem peer and a former government reviewer of counter-terrorism, all argued that the attack demonstrated the need to revive the communications data bill or "snooper's charter", which was excluded from the Queen's Speech after Nick Clegg's intervention. But Cameron's words reassured liberals that the government would not be pushed into hasty legislation. To invert Tony Blair, the rules of the game have not changed. 

But on last night's Question Time, Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, suggested that she and others are more sympathetic to the calls from Reid and co. She said:

I'm very supportive of legislation on communications data, I think it would help us in combating terrorism. 

Elsewhere, today's Independent reports that Theresa May, who has previously accused opponents of the bill of "putting politics before people’s lives", is "determined" to act. A Tory tells the paper: "The Home Secretary is very keen to do something shortly that includes at least some of this Bill. I suspect any opportunity to strengthen pressure on the naysayers will be taken. She is absolutely determined to do something on this."

What is not clear is whether Villiers and May only have in mind changes to make sure all mobiles are linked to IP addresses, something Clegg is willing to consider (and which may not require primary legislation), or whether they hope to revive the bill in its original form, which would require internet service providers to retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year. But however modest or severe the proposals, the coalition is heading for further division over this. A spokesman for Clegg simply said: "There are already substantial powers in place to track the communications of criminals and terrorists." 

Home Secretary Theresa May arrives to attend a meeting with government's emergency response committee, COBRA, in Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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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