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UN Warns UK – Internet Encryption and Privacy Must be Protected

Friday, May 29th, 2015 (11:07 am) - Score 807
internet privacy and security uk isp

The United Nations special rapporteur for protecting and promoting freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, has published a new report that warns the United Kingdom and other countries against adopting measures into law that would add a backdoor for Internet encryption, which it said risked “weakening everyone’s online security“.

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already signalled his intention to introduce tough new mass Internet surveillance powers (here) and part of this appears to involve a controversial drive that would also give the Government access to secure encrypted communications (here).

Encryption is a vital service and without it you don’t have credit card payments or secure financial transactions, similarly your emails wouldn’t be private and global businesses would struggle to communicate confidential plans and new system designs for fear that they might be stolen. Put simply, encryption is everywhere and we all use it; often without even realising.

But the Government are understandably concerned that bad people can use encryption too, such as criminals or terrorists, and as such they’re seeking new powers that would allow them to gain access to encrypted content. “The question is are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read. My answer to that question is: no, we must not,” said Cameron. But the UN report disagrees.

David Kaye said:

Some call for efforts to weaken or compromise encryption standards such that only Governments may enjoy access to encrypted communications. However, compromised encryption cannot be kept secret from those with the skill to find and exploit the weak points, whether State or non-State, legitimate or criminal.

It is a seemingly universal position among technologists that there is no special access that can be made available only to government authorities, even ones that, in principle, have the public interest in mind. In the contemporary technological environment, intentionally compromising encryption, even for arguably legitimate purposes, weakens everyone’s security online.”

Indeed another problem with all this is that the Internet is a global platform and criminals, of course, won’t play ball. It’s difficult to get the secure keys for systems that exist outside of your control or jurisdiction and the Government would probably have better luck banning water from the sea.

As the boss of Internet provider AAISP, Adrian Kennard, said earlier this year, “If you take what [Cameron] said literally it would mean whispering to your partner in bed would be illegal in case the government planted microphone could not pick up what you said.”

David Kaye added:

Encryption and anonymity, separately or together, create a zone of privacy to protect opinion and belief. For instance, they enable private communications and can shield an opinion from outside scrutiny, particularly important in hostile political, social, religious and legal environments.

Where States impose unlawful censorship through filtering and other technologies, the use of encryption and anonymity may empower individuals to circumvent barriers and access information and ideas without the intrusion of authorities.

Journalists, researchers, lawyers and civil society rely on encryption and anonymity to shield themselves (and their sources, clients and partners) from surveillance and harassment. The ability to search the web, develop ideas and communicate securely may be the only way in which many can explore basic aspects of identity, such as one’s gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin or sexuality.”

The report also notes that most Governments already have the tools at their disposal to use against criminals, such as wiretapping, geo-location and tracking, data-mining, traditional physical surveillance and many others. In addition, security services also use encryption to protect their operations and the same risk of exposure would apply to them too.

Kaye ultimately concludes that encryption and other Internet privacy tools are important to the core legal rights, such as freedom of opinion and expression. Restrictions on encryption and anonymity, says Kaye, must thus be “strictly limited according to principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and legitimacy in objective“.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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7 Responses
  1. Avatar FibreFred

    I know some people on here think different but there’s no way they are doing to ban/control VPN clients not a chance.

    I know some have said they reckon they’ll enforce certain types of clients that have backdoor in so they can snoop, that is just laughable.. can you imagine mega corp’s or a business of any size agreeing to use a secure unsecure client, any backdoor could be comprised by the right and wrong people.

    Not gonna happen

  2. Avatar Steve Jones

    There are no proposals that I know of to put back-doors into the encryption protocols themselves. The government experts on this know that it’s unenforceable, at least in anything remotely like a modern western democracy. So much open-source encryption software is available that it would be impossible to control its use by individuals or by organisations beyond the reach of UK law.

    The gist of what appears to be proposed is that those who provide messaging, email and similar services to customers based in the UK must be able to provide unencrypted versions of communication after due legal process (a warrant of some sort). The same is true of any number of other things which may be held by companies, such as bank statements, credit card transactions and so on. Only a few very privileged communications are exempt (typically client-lawyer communications for instance). This is similar to what is required for intercepting mail or phone calls. It would not, of course, provide access to any user-encrypted attachments to messages (they are subject to laws requiring disclosure of encryption keys by individuals with due process).

    So there is not the slightest chance the UK will (or even could) weaken encryption protocols. Nor, will they be able to enforce this on peer-to-peer systems or those who operate outside of the UK legal jurisdiction. (The major operators, like Facebook or Google conform to local laws as they have legitimate commercial interests, but if they felt there own systems were compromised, they have the option to withdraw from a country and that acts as a constraint in any democracy).

  3. Avatar timeless

    lm surprised all online businesses havent stepped in.. take skype for instance, money passes hands if the government had a back door it wouldnt just be possible to spy on ppl in the UK but those elsewhere as you cant weaken encryption without opening up the possibility of weakening it for everyone, not to mention god knows how many millions financial details at risk, it would decimate their business if that happened.

    what cameron is asking will decimate the internet as everyone knows it and it wont just be for us, but everyone!!

    • Avatar Steve Jones

      Good heavens. You actually think David Cameron could get a backdoor built into Skype (or any other major operator)? Just how much influence do you think this country has? I think you need to remember that these are almost all US corporations, and if any country could gate backdoors built in it would be the USA. They would not take kindly to another country doing the same. Indeed, I suspect the CIA keep very, very tight control on all this.

      So if you are looking for one country that might be able to do this, it will be the United States. Now we do, of course, do intelligence sharing with the US, but if history is anything to go by, the CIA would keep the actual mechanisms all to themselves.

      Also, if your theory that Davide Cameron could actually break the Internet is true, don’t you think that the same could be done by any other country that had a sufficient budget? There are several countries out there with the resources and motivation to hack into systems. Both Russia and China have been strongly implicated in this for one. Indeed, it is believed Russia effectively took one of the Baltic states off the Internet by a DoS attack.

      So the notion that some specific item from the Queen’s speech (the detailed proposals to be published) is somehow a front for weakening encryption and creating back doors is fanciful. If anything is going on (and I’m sure it is being plotted by darker forces), it will by those motivated to attack western economies.

    • Avatar X66yh

      I’m quite sure Skype executives will have had a ‘visit’ from the US authorities already.
      They will have been reminded about the USA’s Patriot Act and ‘invited to cooperate’ with the US government.
      So you may rest assured that there will already be a some sort of backdoor in Skype somewhere – you need not worry.

    • Avatar timeless

      to be honest, its possible it could happen given the fact that Cameron has never needed a mandate to do what he wants.. he has already proved that he will do whatever he wants anyways…

      however my point was more to the fact that the internet as we know it wont exist any more if he gets his way regardless of how unrealistic his terms are because lm sure he will try pushing things through regardless, how else do you think he got the welfare reforms through? they got democratically voted out yet he pushed them through with an archaic law that allowed the tories to bypass democracy.

  4. Avatar dragoneast

    What is this about? As with everything, it’s not the bosses/masterminds that do the dirty work in terrorist organisations but the minions, the dumber the better. So Cam is using the age-old scare tactics, a bit more sophisticated these days, to try and put the frighteners on. Nothing wrong with that.

    The problem remains, as the Americans found with the Patriot Act, that once you go beyond that and actually try and use the information, there’s so much that looking for the needle in the haystack becomes harder the bigger you make the haystack, not easier.

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