“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed,” reads the statement on her Facebook Page, “Yet that is precisely what the internet – and the big companies that provide internet-based services – provide. We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.”
It is no secret that the Conservative British government desires access to encrypted Internet communications. In 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron used similar words when he asked President Barack Obama to increase pressure on American Internet companies to work more closely with British intelligence agencies, in order to deny potential terrorists a “safe space” to communicate. The UK government said that messaging apps would have to either add a backdoor or risk a potential ban within the UK.
While it is possible that May was simply recycling the words of her predecessor just days prior to the June 7 election, the fact that she has more than half a million followers on her Facebook Page, and over 350,000 on Twitter, suggests that she and her team understand the power of the Internet and social media. Not only is the Internet a great way to reach voters, but it also provides the opportunity to shift blame away from her government’s ineffective policies.
Ironically, it was the actions of governments, including the UK, that provided the primary catalyst for encryption. While employers and ISPs could potentially intercept data, most people considered that a minor threat. It was revelations of widespread unwarranted, and perhaps even illegal collection of communications by governments that forced developers of messaging apps to implement the very end-to-end encryption that May whinges about.
Governments worldwide face a dilemma. On one hand, they desire access to Internet communications for law enforcement and intelligence purposes. On the other hand, strong encryption is required to protect citizens against criminals and hostile foreign governments. Banning the use of encryption will result in serious economic damage and isolate the country. Requiring backdoors will place everyone at risk of interception by unintended third parties. Neither can be effectively enforced.
Seeking to regulate cyberspace “to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning,” as May desires, is not rational. While they have very different intentions, there is little fundamental difference between the techniques and technologies that terrorists and politicians use on social media. They express opinions, post photos and videos, and recruit followers. What May proposes would require the ability to censor the Internet, a largely impossible task, and one that runs contrary to the freedoms that democracies such as the UK cherish.
Rather than blaming the Internet and using terrorism as an excuse to undermine Internet neutrality, the use of cryptography, and freedom of speech, governments should take a more practical approach to countering extremism online.
Extremists using social media to promote their cause and recruit followers are vulnerable. Governments have the resources and skills to expose them, engage and discredit them, and impact their ability to recruit online. They also have the ability to counter messages, drowning out voices of hate by applying the same techniques used to win elections.
Even more important is offline activity. Governments need to focus on the underlying conditions that make some of their population vulnerable to recruitment by extremists, just as they do with other crime and drug prevention policies. In the long term, addressing these social conditions will provide much more security than blaming the Internet.
Have a security question you’d like answered in a future column? Eric would love to hear from you.
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