Encryption is a crucial element in online security, effectively ‘scrambling’ data so that it can only be read by the intended recipient, and cannot be unscrambled – or decrypted – by any hackers or anyone else who might intercept the message.
However, in recent weeks, the upcoming Investigatory Powers Bill, which plans to increase the security services’ surveillance capabilities, has been making headlines due to fears that it could make unbreakable end-to-end encryption illegal.
Tom Whitehead, security editor at the Telegraph, described it as “a requirement on tech firms and service providers to be able to provide unencrypted communications to the police or spy agencies if requested through a warrant”.
But as some companies – such as Google and Apple – currently offer encryption so strong that even they cannot crack it, this could arguably put them in contravention of the new law when it is brought into action.
However, if mass surveillance of online activity sounds a bit cloak and dagger, then the plot thickened further with a secret meeting at Downing Street on November 4th, in which the prime minister reportedly met with prominent representatives of the UK technology sector.
In that meeting, according to Business Insider, those industry leaders were reassured that the Bill would not actually ban end-to-end encryption – and so would not require them to be able to break their own customers’ encoded messages.
This was echoed in a tweet by Eileen Burbidge, who wrote: “Contrary to other reports, I’ve been told HMG [HM Government] is categorically *not* seeking [a] ban on end-to-end encryption.”
Burbidge is a partner at London-based venture capital fund Passion Capital, with a strong focus on communications, mobile, wireless and internet applications – and her tweet was confirmed by others in the industry too.
So it seems the original reports were a little alarmist, and that the important ability to solidly encrypt online communications, so that only the intended recipient can read them, will continue to be available to those who want that level of privacy in the UK.
However, this still leaves the concern about such a level of protection being used by terrorists when planning an attack, while on the flipside many people are still worried about the level of scrutiny the IP Bill will still allow, making this one headline news story that is unlikely to fade away in a matter of days.