Theresa May’s Plan to Stop Online Extremism Would Require an Impossible Encryption Ban

In the wake of the recent Manchester and London terror attacks, Theresa May responded by declaring that the UK must enforce stricter control over online communications. In an address outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister issued a warning to tech companies: “We need to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online.” However, the proposal to ban end-to-end encryption in order to effectively prohibit these “safe spaces” is not possible, critics say, with it requiring extensive measures to be adequately put into place including threatening national cyber security, forcing tech companies to force backdoors into their products, and blocking the open-source version control site GitHub.

In her continued push to bring an end to cryptography in the UK, May called for the international democratic countries to join her in her efforts to regulate cyber space. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed”, she said. “Yet that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services, provide.” May has been strongly opposed to online privacy since before her time as Prime Minister, with her having proposed the Investigatory Powers Bill (more commonly referred to as the Snooper’s Charter) back when she was the health secretary. The bill was put into power in November 2016.

In her commitment to banning online “safe spaces”, May has previously called for companies to put a stop to their end-to-end encryption by way of providing the government with security backdoors, allowing them to gain access to private conversations on messaging services such as WhatsApp. Speaking on ITV’s Peston on Sunday (via Wired), home secretary Amber Rudd said that tech firms will be asked “to make sure they do more” to remove extremist material, and they will be expected to help “limit the amount of end-to-end encryption”.

However, prohibiting some methods of end-to-end encryption will prove to be ineffectual against prohibiting the circulation of extremist materials online, critics note, and trying to force through a cryptography ban outright would require a number of unreasonable actions to be made that would also require the consent of international companies. Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow explained that sites such as GitHub, which grants users the ability to share and collaborate on software, would need to be banned outright in order to prevent users from accessing software outside of her jurisdiction, while operating system vendors such as Microsoft and Apple would be ordered to alter the likes of Windows and iOS completely.

While end-to-end encryption does shield information from law enforcement, thus making it difficult for them to get their hands on data that may be valuable in the fight against terrorism, it also protects user data from making its way into the hands of hackers and dramatically reduces their vulnerability to cyber attacks. Discussing May’s plans to limit end-to-end encryption, the inventor of the world wide web Tim Berners-Lee said: “Now I know that if you’re trying to catch terrorists it’s really tempting to demand to be able to break all that encryption but if you break that encryption then guess what – so could other people and guess what – they may end up getting better at it than you are.”


WhatsApp, a Facebook property, has long been the target of the UK government. (Featured Image Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

But even if May limited end-to-end encryption, which tech experts have strongly advised against, it is possible that this would make online extremism even more difficult to detect. Open Rights Group, a UK digital rights advocacy group, said: “It is disappointing that in the aftermath of this attack, the Government’s response appears to focus on the regulation of the Internet and encryption.

“This could be a very risky approach. If successful, Theresa May could push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe.

“But we should not be distracted: the Internet and companies like Facebook are not a cause of this hatred and violence, but tools that can be abused. While governments and companies should take sensible measures to stop abuse, attempts to control the Internet is not the simple solution that Theresa May is claiming.”

The “darker corners of the web” that the Open Rights Group is seemingly referring to is the “dark web”, online content that exists on darknets and overlay networks which requires software such as the Tor network to access. The dark web is used to carry out illegal activities online away from the eye of the law, and the inference from the Open Rights Group is that by working towards a cryptography ban, the government will effectively make it more difficult to spot extremist activity by way of forcing perpetrators to conduct their business using the dark web.

If the Conservatives win the General Election, it remains to be seen which polices, if any, they will enforce that will help them tackle end-to-end encryption, and if their plans are welcomed by other international governments. But even if they do manage to make steps towards limiting end-to-end encryption, critics of their plans believe that these measures will have little impact at best, and could threaten the security of some of the UK’s largest online platforms at worst.