American technology companies are by implication evil, and aiding terrorist groups such as Islamic State/ISIS according to a number of highly influential but terribly ill-informed Western players. Apple and Google have become the command and control networks of choice for terrorists and implementing full-device encryption by default will help Islamic State to plan future attacks, if we are to believe certain spy masters and career politicians.
I use the term 'terribly ill-informed' wisely, and am aware that I will no doubt get plenty of flack from those who think the head of the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) or Director of the FBI may just be better informed than myself when it comes to terrorist activity. However, I will stick to my guns and explain why I'm taking the stance that I am here.
But first let's examine what's been said an by whom. It kicked off with James B. Comey, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who said in a speech last month that "those charged with protecting our people aren't always able to access the evidence we need to prosecute crime and prevent terrorism even with lawful authority." Comey spoke of having the legal authority to intercept and access communications and data, but often not the technical ability to do so. Excuse me for saying you could have fooled me, given the Snowden revelations and all that has followed regarding how security agencies are throwing money at technology programs for cracking encryption.
Comey denies the notion that his agency is able to 'snoop' on hardly anything in his speech, stating "some believe that the FBI has these phenomenal capabilities to access any information at any time that we can get what we want, when we want it, by flipping some sort of switch. It may be true in the movies or on TV. It is simply not the case in real life... law enforcement needs to be able to access communications and information to bring people to justice. We do so pursuant to the rule of law, with clear guidance and strict oversight."
Having picked myself up off the floor after that, the next attack on encryption came from the new guy in the big chair at GCHQ in the UK, an 'intelligence and security organisation' according to the home page and the equivalent of the NSA in the US. It was Robert Hannigan who used the "command and control networks of choice for terrorists" phrase when talking about devices and services provided by the likes of Apple of Google. He went on to insist that most Internet users "would be comfortable with a better and more sustainable relationship" between intelligence agencies and leading tech companies. Really? That's certainly not the impression I get from just about everyone I talk to, or from the fallout post-Snowden.
I'm no great lover of conspiracy theory, and while I am sure I will again coming under fire this time from those who insist that Apple, Google, Microsoft et al have already provided backdoors into our data to The Powers That be, surely such increasingly strong arguments by security service chiefs would actually suggest that they are trying to gain leverage to get exactly that rather than already have it.
The career politicians are joining in, and no surprise there it has to be said, the latest to come to my attention being former UK Home Secretary under Tony Blair, David Blunkett. Writing in the Telegraph newspaper Blunkett says that "tech companies who provide encrypted and therefore secret communications online are, albeit unwittingly, helping terrorists to co-ordinate genocide and foster fear and instability around the world." Sounds more like politicians are, very wittingly, spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt to me. Would he accept that makers of brown envelopes had helped criminals and terrorists to hide their communications in the past, and called for all post to be sent unsealed? Would he have argued against the legality of whispering in shadowy corners? Get a grip man.
Let's not forget that it was Blunkett who oversaw the introduction of the Regulation Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) in the UK which was brought in on the back of FUD over terrorist activity. RIPA allows access to and use of certain surveillance data by 'public bodies' and was introduced on a promise of helping law enforcement and security agencies protect us from the terrorist threat. In actual fact it has also been used by local councils to spy on people suspected of letting their dogs poo on the pavement and others who may have lied about where they live in order to get their kids into better schools amongst many other things. According to Liberty over 470 local authorities have access to data under RIPA for everything from 'public disorder' through to tax collection. That's stuffing it to the terrorist how exactly? This kind of 'state surveillance creep' benefits nobody, apart from perhaps the terrorist who can use it to stir up unrest and distrust. Gun meet foot, Mr Blunkett et al.
Here's the harsh, cold, bottom line: it's government infringement of civil rights as highlighted by the likes of Snowden and acts such as RIPA, which are driving citizens to demand tighter control over the privacy of their data. Apple and Google are just responding to that demand. Sure, bad guys will use encryption but here's the thing; they always have. Trying to ensure that everyone else cannot use it, or at least cannot use a version of it that is actually secure, is just another method to control the masses. It has NOTHING to do with keeping us safe or mitigating the Islamic State threat.