Has Clegg sent Norman Baker to stop the return of the Snooper's Charter?

It looks like the Deputy PM may have known that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill back.

Nick Clegg has been on something of a drive to rehabilitate his civil libertarian credentials in recent months after the Secret Courts debacle (my word, definitely not his), nuking the Communications Data Bill, reversing the party’s position on Secret Courts, and securing numerous compromises over the Lobbying Bill.

But the latest step – putting Norman 'conspiracy theory' Baker into the Home Office seemed, for many non-Liberal Democrats, a step too far. "Did the Freemasons stage the moon landings? If so, new Home Office minister Norman Baker will find out…" and "Norman Baker is a green-ink crank – Theresa May will be furious with Cameron and Clegg for appointing him" are two of my favourite reactions from recent days.

Leaving aside the fact that driving Theresa May to distraction seems a perfectly acceptable reason for appointing him, Norman Baker, as many will testify, Norman Baker has been an effective and admired minister at Transport and he’ll do a brilliant job in the Home Office. But – and I’m going to be a touch 'conspiracy theorist' myself now – could there be another reason for Norman’s appointment?

There has been disquiet in recent weeks among the Lib Dem grassroots about the lack of vocal outrage in the parliamentary party about the Prism and Tempora revelations, which presumably went some way to 'helping' Nick make the decision to make a change at the Home Office. But could it also be that Nick knew that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill (aka the Snooper's Charter) back to the table?

How else to interpret the words of the new head of MI5, Sir Andrew Parker, when he said last night?

"Retaining the capability to access such information is intrinsic to MI5's ability to protect the country. There are choices to be made including about how and whether communications data is retained. It is not, however, an option to disregard such shifts with an unspoken assumption that somehow security will anyway be sustained. It will not. We cannot work without tools."

It looks like the debate about the rights of the security services to retain data about UK citizens is going to start all over again. And if it is, I, for one, feel happier knowing I’ve got a green-ink using, card carrying conspiracy theorist sitting in the Home Office. And, I guess, so does Nick Clegg.

Good luck to you, Norman.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

New Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Norman Baker. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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