Calls for transparency as UK government meets technology firms to discuss encryption and privacy

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The UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd is today meeting with technology firms to discuss how they can help to combat terrorism. The meeting comes just days after Rudd said that encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp should not be a “secret place to hide.”

Calls for backdoors to be built into encrypted apps and services have been met with shock, derision and incredulity, but some have pointed out that the controversial Investigatory Powers Act (aka the snooper’s charter) already grants the government the right to force the removal of encryption. Ahead of the Rudd’s meeting, civil liberty organizations have written a letter demanding transparency.

It is signed by representative of Privacy International, Human Rights Watch, and Open Rights Group and it expresses concern about the privacy and security implications in the event of governmental interference with encryption. It calls for talks between the government and technology companies to be “open, transparent and take the human rights and personal security of UK citizens into account.”

The letter makes three keys demands:

  • Transparency about any meetings and agreements made between the Government and tech companies
  • Evidence-based policies that do not jeopardise the personal security of UK citizens
  • Input from the civil society, human rights and legal organisations to ensure that the privacy, and free speech rights of citizens are protected
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The signatories express concern that there is a risk of censorship and limitations of free expression if the government starts telling companies to take down certain content. Assurances are sought that only illegal content would be subject to such requests, and not that which is merely objectionable to those in power.

But the crux of the letter is the impact on individual privacy and security. It says:

We are concerned about the potential for limitations to personal security that could result from technological limitations to encryption following Amber Rudd’s comments about WhatsApp.

We also note that Ms Rudd may seek to use Technical Capability Notices (TCNs) to enforce changes; and these would require secrecy. We are therefore surprised that public comments by Ms Rudd have not referenced her existing powers.

We do not believe that the TCN process is robust enough in any case, nor that it should be applied to non-UK providers, and are concerned about the precedent that may be set by companies complying with a government over requests like these.

We also question whether these measures are of any significant practical benefit in the fight against terrorism. When weighed up against the costs of such an approach, we doubt that measures against general encryption are likely to be proportionate. Hardened criminals are always going to be able to choose tools that offer encryption that is not compromised, because the mathematics behind encryption cannot be forgotten or unpublished. The very least we should have from government is evidence-based policy making.

Many of those who have signed the letter are highly critical of Ms Rudd and her understanding of encryption. Jim Killock, executive director of Open Rights Group, says: “Rudd’s comments to Marr show a worrying lack of understanding about how encryption keeps us all safe. She clearly needs to talk to experts but this should be done openly and transparently. Secret deals between governments and companies have no place in a democracy.”

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Others, like Rebecca Vincent, UK Bureau Director of Reporters Without Borders, are concerned about the implications government interference could have for journalism:

Amber Rudd’s comments on encryption are yet another example of this government sacrificing freedom of expression, the right to privacy, and other human rights in the name of security, and contribute to a very worrying trend of increasing attacks on press freedom in the UK in recent months. The ability to communicate securely is essential for investigative journalists, their sources, and whistleblowers. Eliminating encryption tools likes WhatsApp would have a broad chilling effect, and would serve as another damaging blow to investigative journalism in the UK.

Image credit: Anatoly Vartanov / Shutterstock

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