Column Back in October, a call by spy agencies to weaken end-to-end encryption "because of the children" provoked a bit of analysis on how many times UK Home Secretaries had banged the same drum. All of them, it turned out. All of the time.
The argument is a bit beyond Priti Patel, alas, as she ran the threadbare rag up the flagpole yet again in April, presumably on the grounds that the 50th time's the charm.
The real world has not done her argument any favours in the weeks since. Last Wednesday, law-abiding citizens around the world enjoyed hearing about a massive collar-feeling spree courtesy of Operation Trojan Shield. This was a sting that did better than many a startup: it flogged a respectable 12,000 custom messaging devices to the, if you will, crimmunity before using the intercepted data to reel in getting on for a thousand of its least attractive members.
Not enough? You'll have to go back to, oh, the day before, when the great Colonial Crypto Cashback scheme was revealed. Here, the ransomware'd fuel pipeline saw $2m returned from the maw of the malware mob after the Feds not only intercepted the blaggers' Bitcoin wallet but also the keys. You know, the stuff built from unbreakable, completely secure encryptonium.
Finally, because we must Think Of The Children, we can skip back into the distant days of last month, when the German police closed down the world's biggest paedophile picture palace, despite it being on what the world calls the Big Scary Darknet and what we know as the internet but with extra relays. That has rather a lot of encryption. Yet again, though, the ringleaders got their doors dismantled by size 13s at dawn while the punters nervously await their own disk scan delights.
All these things – and so, so many more – have happened in spite of not having the ability to break strong encryption. It's not as if these were heroic, decade-long one-off events either. They've delivered exactly the sort of results that we're told are impossible, and delivered them spectacularly. These are arrests at scale: welcome to the world of the kiloscrote bust.
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We're familiar with the marketing message that the internet scales, that with the right techniques and planning, you can have a good idea in the morning and half a billion users by teatime. The idea that this applies to policing as well is harder to take onboard, but the same drivers apply and the same benefits accrue – to the police, admittedly, rather than their customers.
The reason so many cloud services are possible and profitable is that they easily match the technology to the market. Most of the hard work's been done for you: your customers are familiar and at ease with internet technologies. They trust them. They may not trust you, but that's your job. If you deliver a good service, you'll get a useful group of regulars who'll reward you, perhaps with money but more often with data.
Guess what. Criminals are people too. What they do generates data, exactly as your Aunty Heather does as she goes online shopping, only with more guns, drugs, and fraud. Or maybe not, depending on your family. Persuade criminals to use a particular service, and you can literally sit on your blue-trousered behind drinking institutional coffee and watch them send you all their secrets. Because it's the internet, you can do all this with a very small team running the system – minimising the chances that mobster counter-intelligence will bribe their way into, steal, or spot what's going on.
Like all e-commerce, this depends on trust. As with all of us upstanding incorruptibles, the underworld does its research. It reads technical reportage, and it knows, as we know, that the basic mechanisms of standard encryption are mathematically secure – for now and never without caveats, but good enough. So they happily assemble themselves in large groups of self-incriminating naughty people while Plod does the paperwork to swoop in and enjoy that 800-arrests-for-the-price-of-one online offer.
If they didn't trust the internet's encryption because of laws ensuring its insecurity, they wouldn't do this. They wouldn't stop being criminals, but they'd move on to doing something safer and more profitable – most likely finding ways to jemmy open the state-mandated back doors and make off with all our transactions. Not so much win-win but the other thing, oh, what is it… ah yes, lose-lose.
The evidence piles up day after day, week after week, world-weary Reg column after world-weary Reg column.
State-mandated insecure encryption is a very bad idea. You can't make anything more secure by making it less secure.
Good old-fashioned policing backed up by well-funded technical expertise and lots of human intelligence works just fine, and it bolsters, rather than threatens, the rights and protection of citizens. Yes, even the children. Think about that, Priti. ®