Surveillance State: What do Anonymity and Encryption mean for the UK?

Surveillance State: What do Anonymity and Encryption mean for the UK? - Digital

On Friday 26 June, ARTICLE 19 brought together two of the leading international voices on anonymity and encryption: the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, and former GCHQ director Sir David Omand, at an event chaired by Privacy International’s Carly Nyst.

Last month David Kaye presented his ground-breaking report to the UN on anonymity and encryption – which presented for the first time in the UK at the event; furthermore, earlier this month we saw the wide-ranging Anderson Report on UK surveillance laws.

ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director, Thomas Hughes, introduced the debate, explaining that encryption and anonymity have become the nexus of the conflict between our privacy as individuals and our national security. The fundamental question posed: where should the line between the two be drawn?

In front of a packed audience of journalists, politicians, academics and human rights defenders David Kaye presented his report, and David Omand responded, followed by a lively Q&A, mediated by Carly Nyst. While Omand labelled some of Kaye’s recommendations ‘lame’, he acknowledged that he had to ‘work rather hard’ to answer the report’s ‘legitimate concerns’ on the topic.

It was uncontentious that encryption is a positive force, Omand even positing that “we need very strong encryption to keep our economy going.” What was in debate, however, was whether those tools should have ‘backdoors’ for government: Kaye argued that, having spoken with many technologists in the area, it seemed unlikely that backdoors could be securely built ‘only for the good guys’, without capacity for abuse by others online.

Even if that were possible, the precedent of government access to private communication sets a bad example to governments who might use it for repressive purposes, he argued.

“We have mortgaged our future to the internet” intoned Omand ominously, before arguing that since the internet is inherently unsafe, rigorous policing is a necessary tool for the security of citizens. He further stated that, according to experts, anonymity is something of a myth in many cases – that de-anonymisation is possible in a huge number of cases.

Particular points of contention in the debate were whether companies can be trusted online to monitor and regulate online expression, whether they can or should be deputised by government. Omand suggested that user-complaints systems are currently doing an adequate job of content-regulation, while Kaye contested that both offended members of the public and social media outlets are likely to have motives other than the protection of free speech, or indeed privacy.

David Kaye advocated the maximum possible freedom of online expression without allowing incitement: “We should go back to the fundamental rule, which is that communication online which does not rise to the level of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence should not be prohibited- there are other tools to be used, but that it is a fundamental rule.”

There was further discussion around the extent to which the government should be trusted with such powers- Omand said: “I have always been slightly mistrustful of governments, having been in the system.”

In addition to this event on Friday evening, Channel 4 News broadcast a segment on the same topic, in the wake of the attacks in Tunisia, France and Yemen, in which Omand and Kaye discuss security measures in the context of freedom of expression.