Chris Baraniuk has written an excellent piece for Wired, clinically dissecting David Cameron’s policy on law enforcement access to digital data. It’s not a pretty sight, but that’s not Chris’ fault. A dissected naked mole rat is never going to be a pretty sight… not even to other naked mole rats.
Mr Cameron seems to be making a serious bid to drag us back to the “crypto wars” of the late 90s, making opportunistic use of the Charlie Hebdo shootings to press for more powers of communications interception.
Let’s leave aside, until a later blog post, the irony of making statesmanlike soundbites about freedom of speech one day, and then taking steps to ensure it’s impossible the next; or the damage that would be done to our economy if no two parties can transact securely online; or the stagnant Internet backwater that Britain will become, if we can’t use the same standard security technology as everyone else…
Instead, for today let’s just look at one other reason why Mr Cameron’s proposals should be met with a resounding and unanimous “No”. And I apologise for doing this, but I’m going to have to mention Tony Blair. You see, I heard him on the radio saying that “look, y’know, I’m sorry if I had to make hard decisions, but…” and so on. It was all like a grisly flashback – the same glib phrases, the same glo”al stop, and the same sophistry of twisting a failure into the semblance of a virtue.
He was talking about the deals done with Sinn Féin in the run-up to the Good Friday agreement, and the so-called On The Run letters that were issued to people the government had no intention of bringing to justice. At least, that was the theory. In practice, one of the letters went to John Downey, and subsequently caused the collapse of the 2014 trial for the Hyde Park bombing of 1982. Mr Blair admits that Mr Downey should never have received such a letter. About 180 “OTR” letters are said to have been issued.
So, on the available evidence, the authorities had a failure rate of one in a hundred and eighty… and this in an identified group of people in whom it already had an intense law enforcement and intelligence interest. These people had already been the focus of long-term investigation and, no doubt, surveillance, and still, one of them was inappropriately granted immunity from prosecution.
The perennial adage from the counter-terrorism lobby is that “we have to win every time: the terrorists only have to win once”. What the OTR letters illustrate is that the terrorists don’t even have to win: all they need to do is wait for the government to mess up. More communications interception means more data; more data means more interpretation; more interpretation means more cock-ups; more cock-ups mean more miscarriages of justice, and those make us less democratic and less secure.