Govt could tax social media firms for not enabling encryption backdoors, hints Wallace

Minister of State for Security Ben Wallace recently revealed the government's views on encryption by stating that social media firms were forcing the government to spend millions on additional surveillance by denying it access to encrypted communication.

Ben Wallace has suggested that social media firms could be taxed harder by the government to cover for hundreds of millions being spent on additional surveillance.

In an interview given to the Sunday Times, Wallace basically reiterated what several government ministers have spoken about in the last few months- that encryption is severely restricting the government's surveillance and counter-terrorism abilities and needs to be minimised.

'We should stop pretending that because they [social media firms like Google and Facebook] sit on beanbags in T-shirts they are not ruthless profiteers. They will ruthlessly sell our details to loans and soft-porn companies but not give it to our democratically elected government.

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'If they continue to be less than co-operative, we should look at things like tax as a way of incentivizing them or compensating for their inaction,' he warned.

Wallace spoke about how the government has been forced to spend hundreds of millions to run deradicalisation campaigns to rehabilitate individuals who were influenced by vitriolic campaigns run by radical organisations on social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube.

The government is also spending vast sums on counter-terrorism operations as well as on additional human surveillance to track down radicals and their followers. According to Reuters, 36 innocent people lost their lives to Islamic terrorism last year in Britain alone.

'We are more vulnerable than at any point in the last 100 years. Because content is not being taken down as quickly as they could do, we’re having to de-radicalize people who have been radicalised. That’s costing millions. They can’t get away with that and we should look at all the options, including tax,' he said.

Last year, Home Secretary Amber Rudd went so far as to say that encryption 'wasn't for real people' and that she didn't need to understand how encryption worked because it ultimately helped criminals.

'I don't need to understand how encryption works to understand how it's helping, end-to-end encryption, the criminals. I understand the principle of end-to-end encryption and the fact it can't be unwrapped... There are other areas, to do with metadata...to do with other access that could help and we don't get that help,' she said.

Even though a number of terrorist organisations could be leveraging the cover of encryption to radicalise the masses and to distribute hateful content without getting caught, it is also true that any backdoor created by social media firms could also be exploited by rogue hackers and enemy states who have no lack of hacking talent.

In the recent past, social media firms have also upped their efforts to beat back online radicals who have been trying to spread enmity amongst people and to instigate individuals to carry out terrorist attacks.

'Mr Wallace is wrong to say that we put profit before safety, especially in the fight against terrorism. We’ve invested millions of pounds in people and technology to identify and remove terrorist content,' said Facebook executive Simon Milner to Reuters.

Back in September, WhatsApp decided not to create a back door to help government agencies access encrypted messages that could help prevent terrorist attacks. However, the company continues to provide important details to the government like the name of an account, the date it was created, the last time it was accessed, the IP address of the device which was used to access it and the associated email address.

Talking about why rash measures on part of the government could undermine cyber security of the UK as a whole, Jonathan Evans, an ex MI5 chief who retired in 2013, said that while the use of encryption has hampered the ability of security agencies to access communications between terrorists, banning encryption altogether would also impact the cybersecurity of the society as a whole.

'I’m not personally one of those who thinks we should weaken encryption because I think there is a parallel issue, which is cybersecurity more broadly. While understandably there is a very acute concern about counter-terrorism, it is not the only threat that we face. The way in which cyberspace is being used by criminals and by governments is a potential threat to the UK’s interests more widely,' he said.

'It’s very important that we should be seen and be a country in which people can operate securely – that’s important for our commercial interests as well as our security interests, so encryption in that context is very positive,' he added.