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Conversations in Private

In a recent BBC news page (Lee D. Message encryption a problem – Rudd. BBC News (1 August 2017)), the author explains how Home Secretary Amber Rudd is on a mission to persuade large tech companies like Google and Facebook to leave back doors for governmental interventions in encrypted communications tools like WhatsApp. It made me smile when she was quoted as saying, “I’m having those conversations in private.”. Quite. That is what the rest of us would like to do, too.

I think she needs better advisors on the subject of encryption. I suspect that a lot of those who are deeply criminal, paranoid (or both) already avoid mainstream services or add additional layers of obfuscation to their communications. If you have agreed a code in advance, all you need is something as simple as a washing line and you can send messages by choosing what colour shirt to hang out. Or, across the Internet, I could have an inane Twitter feed and you could look for the first acronym I use in each message; while (almost) everyone else knows that LOL means ‘laughing out loud’, you might understand it means ‘take action tonight’. Or I could send you a string of letters and numbers, like 63063B7032. True geeks among you might recognise that as possibly being hex but would you think to pick out references to characters in the first paragraph of this post (indexed from zero)? If you knew what to look for, you could waste sometime picking out the letters by hand or, for a longer message, writing a short program to do that automatically (I used an interactive Python prompt to work out the references). If you didn’t know my source text, you could waste of time trying to figure it out by other means – no repeated characters or obvious spaces required.

In other words, there is alway a way round those spying on you in order to convey your message. Metadata about who sent what to whom? Perhaps I’ll use my blog as one part and set up a visual art project elsewhere, showing random pictures made from letters and numbers – or even get that done under two distinct identities. If you remember the story of the Enigma engine being cracked at Bletchley Park in WWII, the reason it was such a tightly guarded secret was that, if the Germans had guessed the Allies had broken the code they could easily have made a few changes and made it impenetrable again.

What the Rt Hon Amber Rudd – and security services round the world – need to do is not encourage people to take more precautions to hide their messages but to make it so easy to communicate secretly that people get sloppy and leave other ways to work out what they are saying.

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