Encryption is a touchy subject for the Home Office

Theresa May's Modern Crime Prevention Strategy: strong on rhetoric, light on security measures

Encryption

The publication of the Modern Crime Prevention Strategy by the Home Office yesterday was meant to make clear how the government will tackle crime. Actually, it just knocked another couple of nails into the privacy coffin.

You can read the whole depressing thing here, though you can skip to chapter eight, about using data and tech to prevent crime.

This got off to a bad enough start with the opening paragraph, which read: "Data and technology are not drivers of crime in themselves. Rather, they are tools that are critical to successfully preventing crime."

Erm, really? So hackers are not driven to access databases in order to profit from the information contained within them then? The fact that we nearly all have mobile devices which unlock our bank accounts, for example, does not drive hackers to develop methods of attacking them?

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Seriously, who wrote this drivel? "Finding and correcting weak spots in online banking systems will make fraud less profitable to organised criminals", they insist. Actually, patching vulnerabilities makes accessing those systems harder but it does not make successful fraud any less profitable.

The real driver behind the strategic thinking of the government is revealed soon enough in chapter eight though. "We need a culture change in which everyone recognises that, in a more connected society, we all have a part to play in preventing crime", it says.

Translated from spin to reality that would read: all your data belongs to us'.

How so? The Home Office is implementing the National Law Enforcement Data Programme, which is collecting all data from the Police National Computer, Police National Database and Automatic Number-Plate Recognition systems and putting it onto a single platform.

The ANPR datacentre has information on more than 22 billion car journeys, the vast majority of which will have been perfectly legal and not involved in any criminal activity at all, even after the Surveillance Camera Commissioner called into question the legality of collecting data on vehicles not known to be of interest to law enforcement last year.

It's all part of the predictive policing concept that sits at the heart of the strategy when it comes to the use of technology and data. Data that will be used to map criminal networks, identify trends, patterns and relationships. Remember that if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear, as you watch Minority Report once more.

The biggest load of drivel to emerge from chapter eight, however, is probably summed up in the paragraph that insists "members of the public... have a responsibility to follow some basic rules" such as "choosing the more secure products, installing security software on all our devices, downloading software updates (particularly on our smartphones) and using strong passwords".

No mention of using strong encryption on our smartphones, I note. Nor any mention of the government's desire to build backdoors into such encryption via the Investigatory Powers Bill, should spies need to access people's data.

Businesses, the report says, need to "take responsibility for ensuring their products and services don't create opportunities for criminals", which is as clear as very murky mud. So is the next line, which states they must do this "as well as protecting their own networks and making it as easy as possible for customers to avoid unnecessary risks".

The government fails to elaborate here on what kind of steps businesses should take outside of this vague guidance, steps as simple and necessary as encryption, for example.

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Not that the strategy document ignores encryption altogether. It does recognise that it presents "opportunities for the public to protect their information from cyber criminals, and also for protecting government data, and making public services and communications with citizens secure" all of which is a good thing.

However, this is immediately followed by the big but: "Encryption also can present challenges, such as when the authorities want access to data that indicates criminal activity. We are monitoring the increasing sophistication of encryption techniques." 

What it doesn't do, of course, is make any mention of the Investigatory Powers Bill and how the exact same government plans to weaken encryption so that actually it's of absolutely no use to anyone.

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