Cryptic Messages

In the aftermath of the Westminster terror attack last week, one of the most quoted phrases was that one oft quoted in such a circumstance – “we won’t let the terrorists win”.

In practical terms, this means that we won’t let terrorists change our habits or affect the way we live.  There are, however, lessons to be learnt and one of the potential challenges that has arisen is around encryption of messages.

Adrian Ajao, the Westminster terrorist, sent a final message using WhatsApp before killing four people and being shot himself.  That message could provide valuable evidence of collaborators, motives… But WhatsApp haven’t handed it over.

That’s mainly because they actually can’t.  They can hand over meta data such as the time of the message, but they can’t give up the message themselves.  This is because they use end to end encryption.

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Put simply, end to end encryption means that a connection is created between two phones.  When a message is sent between the two, a key from the sender turns it in to a random mess and the only thing that can make sense of that mess is the key at the recipients phone.

This, Amber Rudd said yesterday, is “completely unacceptable”. “We have to have a situation where we can have our security services get into the terrorists’ communications. There should be no place for terrorists to hide,” the Home Secretary said.

That doesn’t sound unreasonable.  It sounds even less unreasonable when you think that David Cameron said the same thing about Blackberry Messenger during the London Riots of 2011.  (Yes, that really was 2011.  Where did the time go?)

The problem with the suggestion is that end to end encryption is an all or nothing thing.  Breaking it would require a master key and however good the intentions of the Security agencies, if a master key is possible for them then it’ll be possible for people who want to read the messages of the average person on the street.

With the level of technology I play with, a common phrase of mine is that “there must be a way”.  I’m always sure I can’t be the first person to want to do what I need to do and someone will already have found a solution.  The fact that there isn’t a way to break end to end encryption , therefore, feels quite strange.

It’s kind of comforting, knowing that the only person who can read a message is the intended recipient.  I also like the fact that it has been implemented in such a way that even the people that built it can’t do anything about it.

But then I also don’t have anything to hide and neither do the majority of people, so is national security worth people not being able to read random chat?  Is that really the standard we’re setting on not letting the terrorists win?

I awake to find no peace of mind
I said how do you live as a fugitive
Down here where I cannot see so clear
I said, what do I know
Show me the right way to go

And the spies came out of the water
But you’re feeling so bad ’cause you know
But the spies hide out in every corner
But you can’t touch them no, ’cause they’re all spies
They’re all spies

I awake to see that no one is free
We’re all fugitives
Look at the way we live
Down here, I cannot sleep from fear no
I said, which way do I turn
Oh I forget everything I learn

And the spies came out of the water
But you’re feeling so bad ’cause you know
The spies hide out in every corner
But you can’t touch them no
‘Cause they’re all spies
They’re all spies

And if we all hide here
They’re going to find us
And if we don’t hide now
They’re going to catch us where we sleep
And if we don’t hide here
They’re going to find us

And spies came out of the water
But you’re feeling so good ’cause you know
Though spies hide out in every corner
They can’t touch you no
‘Cause they’re just spies

Spies by Coldplay

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