An end to end-to-end encryption: a biblical view

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By Guy Brandon, 4 April 1984

The government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill is to be published today. David Cameron has called it one of the most significant pieces of legislation this parliament.

It includes a series of measures designed to modernise communications law, including preventing criminals from communicating online unchecked. As David Cameron has explained, ‘I would just say to people “please, let’s not have a situation where we give terrorists, criminals, child abductors, safe spaces to communicate… we shouldn’t allow the internet to be a safe space for them to communicate and do bad things.’

Unbreakable encryption

As part of the new measures, Internet Service Providers will have to save details of their customers’ online activity for 12 months. There will be so-called safeguards against the misuse of these new powers, such as a ban on councils accessing people’s internet records. Perhaps most controversially, though, is the call to prevent companies from providing unbreakable encryption. Although data is routinely encrypted, it can generally still be accessed by the service provider. ‘End-to-end’ encryption means that it encrypted on the sender’s device, and only decrypted on the recipient’s, meaning that only those for whom it is intended can read it. Even service providers cannot access it.

Apple has already started selling iPhones that offer end-to-end encryption, meaning that they can no longer provide data to police or intelligence agencies when presented with a warrant. The hugely popular WhatsApp smartphone app allows secure messaging for Android devices. And there is, of course, already a huge amount of free and readily available software that allows people to communicate extremely securely.

Having your cake and eating it

There are significant challenges ahead. In the words of a Home Office spokesperson, ‘The Government is clear we need to find a way to work with industry as technology develops to ensure that, with clear oversight and a robust legal framework, the police and intelligence agencies can access the content of communications of terrorists and criminals in order to resolve police investigations and prevent criminal acts.

‘That means ensuring that companies themselves can access the content of communications on their networks when presented with a warrant, as many of them already do for their own business purposes, for example to target advertising. These companies’ reputations rest on their ability to protect their users’ data.’

And therein lies one major problem. It is simply not possible to have security that can be circumvented selectively. Neither the government nor corporations are immune to hacking, leaking data or leaving laptops full of confidential information on the train. Whilst leaving a ‘safe space’ for terrorists is undesirable, it is fundamentally at odds with maintaining other aspects of our security.

The Bible and state power

Practical issues about workability and enforceability aside, there is the ideological problem of giving more and more power to the state over citizens’ lives. The Bible has much to say about this. Unlike the surrounding nations, the concentration of wealth, technology and political power in the hands of the Israelite king and state was limited under the Law. Deuteronomy 17 sets out some of these restrictions.

The Israelites had already lived under centralised and unaccountable authority before, in Egypt, and they knew the risks. Over the course of the next several hundred years, they would experience the abuses of other such centralised powers: Assyria and Babylon invaded and exiled the northern and southern kingdoms respectively, leading to the complete destruction of Israel and only a remnant of Judah surviving. In the New Testament period, the Roman Empire provided another example of such oppressive state power. God’s people themselves were not to fall into the same trap.

The warning could be summarised in the words of the 19th century historian and politician, Lord Acton: ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.’

Hence the political structures found in the Bible are decentralised, preventing the concentration of power that not just could but almost inevitably would be abused. The same goes for financial and technological power, which tends to go hand-in-hand with political power. This is reflected in the idea of Subsidiarity found in Catholic Social Teaching.

There remain intractable problems with our approach to online security. The risk is that in trying to maintain our safety, we give up freedoms that, as Christians, we will quickly miss.

For more on a biblical approach to privacy and surveillance, see:

 

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Category: Blogs

November, 2015

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