History of the Crypto Wars in Britain

Back in March I gave an invited talk to the Cambridge University Ethics in Mathematics Society on the Crypto Wars. They have just put the video online here.

We spent much of the 1990s pushing back against attempts by the intelligence agencies to seize control of cryptography. From the Clipper Chip through the regulation of trusted third parties to export control, the agencies tried one trick after another to make us all less secure online, claiming that thanks to cryptography the world of intelligence was “going dark”. Quite the opposite was true; with communications moving online, with people starting to carry mobile phones everywhere, and with our communications and traffic data mostly handled by big firms who respond to warrants, law enforcement has never had it so good. Twenty years ago it cost over a thousand pounds a day to follow a suspect around, and weeks of work to map his contacts; Ed Snowden told us how nowadays an officer can get your location history with one click and your address book with another. In fact, searches through the contact patterns of whole populations are now routine.

The checks and balances that we thought had been built in to the RIP Act in 2000 after all our lobbying during the 1990s turned out to be ineffective. GCHQ simply broke the law and, after Snowden exposed them, Parliament passed the IP Act to declare that what they did was all right now. The Act allows the Home Secretary to give secret orders to tech companies to do anything they physically can to facilitate surveillance, thereby delighting our foreign competitors. And Brexit means the government thinks it can ignore the European Court of Justice, which has already ruled against some of the Act’s provisions. (Or perhaps Theresa May chose a hard Brexit because she doesn’t want the pesky court in the way.)

Yet we now see the Home Secretary repeating the old nonsense about decent people not needing privacy along with law enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic. Why doesn’t she just sign the technical capability notices she deems necessary and serve them?

In these fraught times it might be useful to recall how we got here. My talk to the Ethics in Mathematics Society was a personal memoir; there are many links on my web page to relevant documents.

4 thoughts on “History of the Crypto Wars in Britain

  1. “GCHQ simply broke the law and, after Snowden exposed them, Parliament passed the IP Act to declare that what they did was all right now”.

    Such behaviour is no doubt surprising and appalling to a scientist; a historian, on the other hand, merely clicks his tongue and shakes his head. It’s the oldest pattern of all. Talk of democracy and human rights is window-dressing; today, as always, politics has only one rule.

    Might is right. According to Thucydides, 2500 years ago the Athenians explained this fact of life to the Melians in the following ringing words:

    “… [R]ight, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

    Nothing significant has changed since then.

    On the other hand, you can certainly hope to embarrass them somewhat by chivvying them about their more flagrant lies and broken promises. If, that is, they have any residual sense of shame – which somehow I doubt.

    Oh, and as for the ECJ: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41012265

    1. Thucydides and Athenians had no understanding of our modern concept and use of human rights. Democracy, as practiced around the world, is far from perfect. But can democracy ever be realised? Our contemporary concept and practice of privacy are in most respects constructed by our technological developments. What is worrying is that most of those three hundred years of development in privacy could be wiped out in the next three decades. Then indeed the other human rights we now have and democracy will start to be just a memory.

  2. Thank you for all your hard work, it’s sad that politicians don’t understand why the U.K. has not required people to carry ID at all times…


    John Jones

  3. Do you think criminals adhere to the law?

    Do you think the ethics boards of various university’s would sign off on some psychological experiments or even have the resource to carry out country or continent wide experiments in a bid to gain a better understanding of human behaviour in order to preempt any significant risks to human life in the future?

    There’s a reason why the military operate in secret online and offline, influencing your life in many ways if you are clever enough to spot them, but section 56.4b of the Snoopers Charter http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2016/25/section/56/enacted is perhaps an admission that they had to change the law to make legal their actions carried out on people living in the UK clever & patient enough to catch them!

    No one asks to be born, but your medical records including your anonymous sexual health clinic visits are not anonymous, your school reports, even the grades you get can be rigged to influence your future.

    Think about. Its more big brother than you realise.

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