Amber Rudd is facing a fierce backlash after calling technology experts sneering and patronising, and admitting she doesn’t understand end-to-end encryption, despite repeatedly calling on tech firms to drop it.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative party conference yesterday, the home secretary said it’s “so easy to be patronised in this business”.
“We will take advice from other people but I do feel that there is a sea of criticism for any of us who try and legislate in new areas, who will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right,” she said.
“I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping – end-to-end encryption – the criminals,” she added.
Rudd’s comments have drawn the ire of privacy campaigners, cyber security firms and scores of tech professionals on Twitter.
— Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) October 2, 2017
Kevin Bocek, chief cyber-security strategist at encryption experts Venafi, said Rudd had highlighted her own shortcomings in understanding the basic workings of encryption.
“The ‘reality’ of end-to-end encryption means tech companies are unable to give access – it is not simply ‘theory’ but the laws of mathematics that make breaking encryption impossible without a backdoor which leaves systems accessible to cyber criminals,” he said.
Open Rights Group’s executive director Neil Killock told NS Tech that Rudd was “simply demanding the impossible”.
“She may as well object to criminals using electricity, or mathematics,” he said. “She should also be worried that any success she has will simply move criminals off law abiding platforms, and into ever darker corners of the internet.”
Jonathan Evans, a former head of MI5, and Robert Hannigan, the former director of GCHQ, are among the experts who have previously called into question the government’s efforts to crack down on encrypted messaging.
Hannigan told Radio 4’s Today Programme in August that encryption is “overwhelmingly a good thing”. “I don’t advocate building in backdoors,” he said. “It’s not a good idea to weaken security for everybody in order to tackle a minority.”
Rudd courted controversy just weeks later when she wrote in the Telegraph that real people don’t care about encryption, before claiming that she didn’t want to remove it anyway.
Responding to her comments in an op-ed for NS Tech, Open Rights Group’s Ed Johnson-Williams wrote: “What is completely lacking is any serious attempt to tell the public what the Home Office wants internet companies to do to make people’s end-to-end communications accessible.”