A former MI5 chief has said that even though surveillance is important to track down terrorists, banning encryption of messaging services is not a good idea.
Jonathan Evans, former head of MI5, also believes that Britain will continue to face Islamic terrorism for at least the next thirty years.
Britain is in the midst of an intense debate on the relevance on encryption at a time when terrorists and radicals are making increasing use of social media to spread their ideologies.
Earlier this month, Home Secretary Amber Rudd wrote in The Telegraph that had the government been able to access social media messages by terrorists, it would have been able to prevent the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge.
Khalid Masood, the terrorist who ran his car into innocents in Westminster Bridge and also stabbed a police constable, received all his motivation by watching terrorist content on social media, she wrote. She added that Daesh (ISIS) created 11,000 social media accounts in May alone.
Rudd says that she doesn’t want a complete ban on end-to-end encryption, but wants government agencies to have the ability to monitor specific and targeted instances. At the same time, she also doesn’t want companies like WhatsApp to create back doors to encryption but wants ‘mature conversations between the tech companies and the Government’ so that wider security is not compromised.
Jonathan Evans, an ex MI5 chief who retired in 2013, agreed with Rudd to an extent and said that the use of encryption has hampered the ability of security agencies to access communications between terrorists. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he added that banning encryption altogether would also impact the cybersecurity of the society as a whole.
“I’m not personally one of those who thinks we should weaken encryption because I think there is a parallel issue, which is cybersecurity more broadly. While understandably there is a very acute concern about counter-terrorism, it is not the only threat that we face. The way in which cyberspace is being used by criminals and by governments is a potential threat to the UK’s interests more widely,” he said.
“It’s very important that we should be seen and be a country in which people can operate securely – that’s important for our commercial interests as well as our security interests, so encryption in that context is very positive,” he added.
Evans also warned that banning encryption would not only enable hackers to target the Internet of Things that drives our smart home devices, medical equipment at hospitals and smart engineering products at factories but would also put air transport, critical infrastructure, and vehicles at risk.
Without placing a ban on encryption, the government will have a prolonged fight on its hands and may have to face the scourge of Islamic terrorism for the next thirty years. The Westminster Bridge attack had an ‘energising effect’ on Islamic radicals and they followed it up with further attacks in Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park, he said.
Evans also spoke about the idea of Russia’s state-sponsored interference in Britain and said that if Russia is interested in the United States and other European countries, it is difficult to understand why it would not be interested in British affairs as well.
“Traditionally I think we have been seen as quite hawkish and therefore I would be surprised if there had not been attempts to interfere with the election,” he concluded.