Top U.K. Official: Give Up Your Tech Freedoms or the Terrorists Will Win

What happens when you think privacy and speech are just tools of the enemy


Amber Rudd
Andrew Milligan/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The way the United Kingdom's Home Secretary describes the internet and online communications, you'd think privacy and free speech actually cause terrorism.

Amber Rudd, like many of her deliberately dense political peers, is making the media rounds calling for weakening encryption and strengthening online censorship, all in the name of preventing future terror attacks. As the U.K.'s home secretary, Rudd oversees the security apparatus in her homeland. Prime Minister Theresa May served in the same role until a change in government brought her to power.

Rudd and May appear to be birds of a feather in believing that data privacy and online communications are tools of crime and terror, and that tech companies should follow government orders. That means censoring people when officials tell them to, and that means giving the government private data when officials tell them to, even if they have to compromise data security to do so.

This week Rudd took the argument one step further: She doesn't think the average person wants or cares all that much about encryption or data privacy—they just want convenience in communications. Therefore, she argues, there's no reason for companies to focus so much on end-to-end encryption (via Yahoo News, covering Rudd's paywalled commentary):

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Rudd said: "Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?

"So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called 'back doors'.

"Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and 'usability', and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie.

"Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security."

Er, so she is calling for encryption back doors, right? She is insisting that the U.K. government doesn't want to ban encryption. But she wants government access to private data on demand, which will require companies to compromise their data security and weaken encryption. And her justification for doing so is to point out the average user doesn't care.

Besides highlighting her own ignorance about the importance of encryption in general (perhaps she should ask a banker), she stumbles head first into her own counterargument: People who are really determined to do bad things and not be found out by government obviously do care about encryption. So while the government obsesses with making the most popular communication tools compliant to their demands, actual bad guys will turn to other tools instead, tools the government might not even know about.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, points out that these major communications services are willing to provide metadata to law enforcement even if they cannot provide the actual content. Rudd's insistence on access is essentially going to create an encryption black market:

Sandberg warned that if encryption was stripped away, users might flee the service, leaving law enforcement officials with even fewer leads. "If people move off those encrypted services to go to encrypted services in countries that won't share the metadata, the government actually has less information, not more," she said.

That's not the only awful component on Rudd's agenda. She—like other politicians, not just in the United Kingdom but in Germany and the European Union—want to force social media companies to play a bigger role in censoring content by terrorists or "extremists," and she wants to hammer through legislation to make it happen.

These tactics confuse symptoms of radicalization with the causes, treating online terrorist recruiting drives as though the words and images have magic powers that trigger extreme behavior in people who would otherwise be just fine.

There are, of course, unintended consequences of trying to force social media companies to censor content on the basis of declaring it radical or dangerous. An example may have popped up just yesterday, as a matter of fact.

Yesterday, YouTube announced new efforts to combat and take down extremist content online—and also, incidentally, to combat "hate speech" in its postings. YouTube is certainly free, as a private platform, to try to forbid hate speech on its site. It's not like it's sending police to raid people's homes. (That's what the German government does.)

But on the same day the site announced these new takedown efforts to make removal of radical content happen more quickly, a Canadian professor who made waves for saying that he refused to use newly created gender-neutral pronouns found his YouTube account suddenly locked. Jordan Peterson certainly drew criticism for his position, but it was political speech discussing a bill in the Canadian legislature. He tweeted out yesterday that this account had been shut down for violating YouTube's terms of service, with no explanation. Later in the day it was restored, again without explanation.