Has David Cameron really gone to war on encryption?

It's time to ask what the Prime Minister is really trying to do

UK Prime Minister David Cameron's response to the hideous Charlie Hebdo shootings has been dramatic to say the least – and has in turn provoked intense reactions from people in the tech industry, the tech community, privacy activists and political commentators. The reactions are varied, but none are positive. For some, Cameron has revealed him to be an ignoramus of monumental proportions. Others see him acting as the consummate politician, playing and spinning for all he's worth. Perhaps he's an instinctive and depressingly predictable authoritarian, or maybe just an overenthusiastic spy.

So which is it? Ignoramus, politician, authoritarian or spy? First question we have to look at what he is actually suggesting, which as with most political statements isn't as simple as it might seem. One part is direct – bringing back the Communications Data Bill (the notorious "snoopers' charter"), which effectively creates a legal justification for mass data gathering and surveillance. This was derailed on its first attempt thanks to a combination of strong campaigning, resistance from Cameron's coalition partners in the Liberal Democrats, and eventually the revelations of Edwards Snowden.

The second aspect is less clear. The Prime Minister appears to have launched an attack on encryption. "Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn't possible to read?" he asked. "My answer to that question is: 'No, we must not'."

This is the part that has caused the most dramatic reaction. James Ball, in the Guardian, called his policy 'draconian, stupid and economically destructive'. Cory Doctorow said '[w]hat David Cameron just proposed would endanger every Briton and destroy the IT industry.' It's hard not to agree with them if Cameron's statement is to be taken on those terms – a great deal of what happens on the internet entirely legally relies heavily on encryption, from the online banking industry to communications systems like WhatsApp and iMessage.

An attack on encryption

Indeed, it's hard to think of any serious part of the IT industry that doesn't use encryption in a significant way – because encryption is critical to security, and security is critical to almost everything. It is needed to protect ordinary people from precisely the kinds of 'bad guys' that Cameron and others are concerned about, which is one of the reasons why the industry trend is very much towards more rather than less encryption. It is why smartphones are moving towards encryption by default – and why Apple made a great play of this fact in the launch of their newest iPhones, making it clear that not even they, Apple, would be able to access the data on people's phones.

Could Cameron really be such an ignoramus that he doesn't understand this, or does he mean something rather different? Do his comments need decoding? Politicians very often do speak in code – and not a code with a simple decryption key. The UK's general election is just a few months away and everything Cameron and other UK politicians say needs to be understood with that in mind. Cameron knows very well that to be seen to be "tough" on terrorism could be a vote winner, and he also knows that differentiating his party from his coalition partners is one of the keys to any possible success.

By calling for strong action on surveillance and encryption he is forcing the hand of the Liberal Democrats – making them come out against his plans (which they did) and in his eyes making them look 'weak' and by contrast making himself look strong. On those terms it doesn't matter one jot whether his plans are technically feasible or would have the slightest chance of success even if they were. What matters is the message – and he also doesn't mind much if a few geeks say he's talking rubbish or a few privacy activists call him an authoritarian.