You Should Care About This Alleged Terrorist's Encryption Charges in England

Law criminalizes anything done in preparation for attack-including behavior that is normally legal.


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The terrible, authoritarian antiencryption legislation put together by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) died without getting anywhere at all, but they're apparently workshopping new versions of the legislation that are perhaps less awful and less about simply ordering tech companies to assist the feds in destroying their own data security.

We'll have to see what comes out of this work, but everybody should be paying attention to a terrorism case coming out of England. Samata Ullah, 33, of Cardiff, has been charged with several terrorism-related offenses for supporting the Islamic State (ISIS).

Ullah is not charged with actually carrying out violent acts. He is suspected of planning some. But the big deal here is that he being charged with using technology in a way to conceal what he was planning. That's where things get a little dicey. He is charged with using encryption and possessing information that could be used for creating weapons for terrorist attack, even though it's not inherently illegal in England to encrypt one's data or to possess information that can be used for weapons.

Here's how the charges are described via Ars Technica:

The charge sheet includes one count of preparation of terrorism "by researching an encryption programme, developing an encrypted version of his blog site, and publishing the instructions around the use of [the] programme on his blog site."

Ullah is also accused of knowingly providing "instruction or training in the use of encryption programmes" in relation to "the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism or for assisting the commission or preparation by others of such acts."

He has additionally been charged with being in possession of a "Universal Serial Bus (USB) cufflink that had an operating system loaded on to it for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation, or instigation of terrorism."

In one way, it's easy to see a certain type of logic behind such a law. It should be very clear by now that a law attempting to block the use of encryption or to make possession of information itself criminal is not just a dangerous and abuse-promoting violation of the right to security and privacy; it is utterly untenable in the borderless world of the Internet. So instead they're attempting to criminalize when these tools are used to support terrorism.

There's still the obvious problem, though, that the government is criminalizing the tools instead of what is actually done and the potential for abuse in the hands of prosecutors. Silicon Republic noted:

This section of the terrorism law has been cited in a number of incidents over the past year, ranging from individuals being charged over suspected terror incidents in Syria, to teenagers being accused of trying to build a bomb based on plans from the internet.

In 2014, London solicitor Tayab Ali spoke with Vice about how section five was very problematic, as it allows for prosecution of acts that would otherwise be deemed legal by the state.

"Section 5 can criminalise acts that, on their own, would be completely legal – if prosecutors can show that the end purpose of those acts might be terrorism," Ali said at the time.

The law referenced was passed in 2006. The law very literally criminalizes any action or conduct in preparation for a terror attack or assisting anybody else in preparing a terror attack. Blame it on a political "do something" mentality in fighting terrorism. There's no reason why people plotting terrorist attacks cannot be charged for what they're actually attempting to do. Criminalizing information or tools based on their context is just another way to add more charges.

Giving the government the authority to decide when information itself or the use of particular tools are contributing to the commission of a crime is a recipe for prosecutorial abuse. We can pretty much guarantee that laws like this will ultimately, eventually be used to punish people beyond actual suspected terrorists.

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  1. Criminalizing information or tools based on their context is just another way to add more charges.

    Look, do you want the terrorists put away for three lifetimes or just two?

  2. I’m not sure if this a problem. Please explain.

    1. It’s a problem because “terrorist” is a subjective term.

      Prosecutor charges man with using encrypted I phone to set up meeting with other libertarian anti-government extremists. Police arrest the terrorists at their place of meeting and charges of conspiracy were meted out to all involved.

  3. They can criminalize the use of tools when people have no idea what the tools are. You charge somebody with the use of shoes when they’re plotting an attack and people understand how ridiculous that is – but charge them with using algorithms written in binary code to operate a graphical user interface and Holy Shit! throw the book at these guys!

  4. Skimmed the article. Reminds me of the already bullshit charges against people who teach other people how to beat lie detector tests.

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  6. . ‘So instead they’re attempting to criminalize when these tools are used to support terrorism.’

    I’m no lawyer, but I’m wondering if we’ve been doing exactly this for decades, but we’re too stupid to know it.

    For instance, if I commit a felony and I am in mere possession of a firearm silencer, even if legally owned, I believe I’m looking at a 30 year mandatory minimum. There doesn’t have to be a relation between the silencer and the crime itself.

    1. If it’s attached to a weapon probably are. I don’t have an issue with weapons stipulations for felonies (I have problems with certain activities being felonies), but incentives to not take a gun with you when robbing a store I have no problem with. Just pretend you have one. Everyone is safer.

      1. I believe there are mandatory minimums (others) if I have a silencer while “drug trafficking”. The silencer can be locked in a box in my trunk if I’m caught with the minimum number of ecstasy pills that gets me an “intent to distribute”.

        I’m not sure about all the details.

        1. huh. I know in Ohio they’ve been trying to make hunting with a silencer legal. Not that that has anything to do with what we were talking about.

  7. C’mon prosecutors would never misapply this to something other than terrorism because the term *terrorism* is strictly defined and top men just don’t do stuff like that. Trust them, you fucking government-hating libertarian. You sound like a terrorist yourself.

  8. You Should Care…


  9. I think Jerryskids nailed it. They are inching towards ‘ everything not specified legal is illegal’; a blanket ban on everything with special exceptions given to the favored .

  10. You Should Care About This Alleged Terrorist’s Encryption Charges in England

    Oh, I do. This shit needs to be nipped in the bud. A glance at the Bill of Rights might help with that.

    1. You don’t understand. You’d have to have your rights violated to understand. Get back with us when/if that happens.

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