Show Hide image

It’s not up to politicians to tell the public they don’t need encryption

Home secretary Amber Rudd's comments about What's App do a disservice to "real people". 

Amber Rudd was out doing the media rounds yesterday talking about the issues end-to-end encryption poses to law enforcement. One comment in particular caught our eye:

“Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security. Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?”

This is a little like saying: “Who uses a car because it has airbags and seatbelts, rather than because it’s a convenient way to get around?”

The Home Office strategy here may be to persuade internet companies to take action by telling them that ordinary people don’t care about security. This would be dangerous and misleading.

Clearly, real people (who are Rudd’s not real people?) do value security in their communication, just as they do with safety in their cars. Security is not – or at least does not have to be – the opposite of usability.

For many people, good security makes a service usable and useful. Some people want privacy from corporations, abusive partners or employers. Others may be worried about confidential information, sensitive medical conversations, or be working in countries with a record of human rights abuses.

Whatever the reasons people want secure communications, it is not for the Home Secretary to tell the public that they don’t have any real need for end-to-end encryption.

While Rudd seems to be saying she does not want encryption to be “removed” or bypassed, there are other things she might be looking for. It is possible that she wants internet companies to assist the police with “computer network exploitation” – that’s hacking people’s devices.

It could mean providing communications data about users which could include data such as: “This user uses this device, often these IP addresses, this version of their operating system with these known vulnerabilities, talks to these people at these times, is online now, is using this IP address, is likely at this address and has visited these websites this many times.”

Alternatively, Rudd might mean pushing out compromised app updates with end-to-end encryption disabled.

However, it is likely to be police rather than security services asking for this help. While targeted hacking does provide an investigative option that avoids blanket communications surveillance, it would be risky for the police to have these powers. Training and oversight, after all, are not as thorough or exacting as in the security services.

What is completely lacking is any serious attempt to tell the public what the Home Office wants internet companies to do to make people’s end-to-end communications accessible.

We should be told what risks the public would be exposed to if the companies were to agree to the Home Office’s private requests. Have these risks been properly weighed up and scrutinised? What safeguards and oversight would there be?

One risk is that users may start to distrust tech companies and the apps, operating systems and devices that they make. When security vulnerabilities are identified, firms push out updates to users. Keeping devices and apps up-to-date is one of the most important ways of keeping them secure. But if people are unsure whether they can trust pending updates, will they keep their devices up-to-date?

It would be incredibly damaging to UK security if large numbers of people were dissuaded from doing so. A prime example is the WannaCry ransomware attack that paralysed parts of the NHS in May. It spread through old Windows computers that hadn’t been updated, forcing doctors to cancel thousands of appointments.

The government must spell out its plans in clear, precise legislation and subject that legislation to full parliamentary scrutiny, and it should bring security and usability experts into a public debate about these questions.

Measures that deeply affect everybody’s privacy, freedom of expression, and access to information must not be decided behind closed doors.

Ed Johnson-Williams is a campaigner at open rights group. This article orginally appeared on NS Tech, a new division of the New Statesman focusing on the intersection of technology and politics. 

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.