Encryption is not a crime, it's a deterrence

In which, for reasons unknown, the British government tries once again to make a villain out of a technological function that makes everyone safer online.

Tl;dr: Lots of things break and nothing in the stated goal is achieved.

UPDATE (21/01/2022): UK data watchdog, The Information Commissioner’s Office, agrees with me that properly implemented end-to-end encryption keeps kids safer online.

The UK Home Office is back on its anti-encryption campaign. This time it's with an costly and fairly lewd (more on that shortly) public relations blitz aimed at reframing an important but usually invisible security configuration as something akin to a pervy booth at the back of a nude dancing club instead of, say, the function that keeps your banking details, medical records, important business and personal communications confined to just those you think should see them.

In this instalment of the Very British Crypto Wars, Priti Patel's team has signed a £534,000 contract with advertising firm M&C Saatchi to reframe backdooring your security away from being a privacy or security concern to make it "about the children" and the notion that encryption is keeping police from tackling child exploitation online. This is also not the first time to use fly that flag. The Home Office is also working with longtime alley in this battle, the still very misguided NSPCC, which still campaigns that children will be safer only if their communications are some how easer to exploit by adults unknown.

This is a marketing campaign aimed at turning public opinion on a topic that there's very little knowledge about. Wouldn't be the first time. Aside from a blitzkrieg of propaganda in various tabloids and a “partnership” with The Sun to really ramp things up with Conservatives favourite demographic, and one weird, slightly creepy PR stunt.

According to leaked documents on all this, M&C Saatchi notes that “'most of the public have never heard' of end-to-end encryption, one presentation slide about the campaign states – “people can be easily swayed” on the issue." To that end, they recommend going for the ick factor, getting people to not think about privacy and just go for feeling repulsed in a more fact-free environment. And here's where it gets weird. The stunt will be to place a glass box somewhere in public, a high street or shopping mall or some such place, one supposes. In the glass box, The Home Office, with the blessing of an NSPCC and some other charities aimed around children's issues, will pay a child to be locked in the box with an adult male who will leer sexually at them.

“Inside the box, there are two actors; one child and one adult. Both strangers. The child sits playing on their smart phone. At the other end of the box, we see an adult sat on a chair also on their phone, typing away. ... The adult occasionally looks over at the child, knowingly. Intermittently through the day, the ‘privacy glass’ will turn on and the previously transparent glass box will become opaque. Passers by won’t be able to see what’s happening inside. In other words, we create a sense of unease by hiding what the child and adult are doing online when their interaction can’t be seen.”

First, yuck. It sounds like something PETA would do, like when they hire a model to sit naked in a cage in an attempt to make people consider going vegan. Only it's worse, and involves a minor. It also makes you wonder what showbiz parent will think that's a good career move for their tween: Go sit in public somewhere while a strange guy you're confined with ogles at you for the day. For people who try to position themselves as interested in child protection, they have a strange way of showing it.

There are lots of reasons a flailing government might want to detract from all its current scandals by looking for new boo scaries everywhere, and this campaign isn't doing that well. But let's stick to the main point it's trying to make: child safety. So here it goes: Encryption keeps children safe. (note: it's not an age thing, it works the same for everyone). It keeps them safe when transmitting data on whatever network they need to access to use it. Keeps their communications from being profiled by myriad trackers that exist in the surveillance capitalist economy. The Home Office doesn't like Apple's implementation. Who else doesn't? Third party data traders. Encrypted services mean when you call or text your child, there's a chance that stays between your family, like when you talk with them at home. Many families use WhatsApp, which does have strong encryption. They should be using Signal: Strong encryption and a lot of other features to make sure your offspring's data isn't where it shouldn't be. Use it for your family while you can still get it in this country.

The Plague Times have led to more than one school lockdown, when we had to suddenly share are WFH lives across the kitchen table with one or more children trying to navigate classes via a series of Zoom or Teams calls with their classes and doing homework via a number of SaaS platforms. A lot of us manage their clubs memberships, school fees, schedules, teacher reports and social  through websites with questionable user interface choices. One thing you want on your device and in those platforms carrying all that data is strong encryption. I'll take a wonky interface if I'm fairly certain my kid's itinerary isn't being captured mid-way through transmission across the series of connections that make up how communication networks work.

Back-dooring encryption, or policy to weaknesses in it won't work for a number of reasons, it would make things worse and require a rabbit's warren of other dystopian policy choises. You'd also need to legislate a national internet and close access to foreign services that won't subject themselves to local laws, and legislate against tools such as VPNs. You'd need to organise a system for storing master-keys and accessing them in ways that won't be compromised by insider threats or foreign governments. And lots and lots of blocking. Like the blocking that should be keeping me from watching the show I'm watching right now because I don't subscribe to that service (hypothetically speaking).

There are other places where governments try to ban privacy and instil this idea of "#NoPlaceToHide". You don't want to live in them. Some people go to great lengths to leave them and get asylum somewhere else. As much as Priti Patel attacks encryption, she likes to have a go at them, too... particularly when they're at sea.

There are a lot of ways to increase protection of children, all of which this government doesn't want to do. Increase spending on social services, access to good information, better education, and all the things for which this Tory government has cut funding. Incorporate targeted content across something like the BBC, whose funding this government is also working on freezing. Fund better investigative policing tools and teams, which this government also doesn't want to do. Tax big corporations, inclusive of the tech giants utilising strong encryption, to fund these and many other things instead of continuing to let them dodge it. Facebook (Meta) will happily fight a government about encryption so long as it doesn't have to face it over taxes.

So, there are a lot of solutions to the stated problem. The point of weakening or creating backdoors to encrypted systems isn't about safety, it's about what it's always been about; it's about control.

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This article was updated on 21 January 2022