Ian Bell: Cameron’s only idea for defending freedoms is to erode them

In September 2010, one of the most powerful men in the world made a casual boast in the pages of the American publication The Atlantic.

“We know where you are,” he told hundreds of millions of people. “We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”Those were not the words of a president or a dictator. They didn’t emanate from GCHQ, the NSA, or fiendish North Korean hackers. That was Eric Schmidt, the billionaire executive chairman of Google.

He wasn’t kidding. The search engine firm is a $400 billion enterprise thanks to its ability to glean information from our “data exhaust”, information it passes to advertisers for a fee. You can judge the unimaginable quantity of data at stake by the fact that the company made operating profits of $15 billion last year.

But do you remember being asked if Google could keep you under continual surveillance? Do you remember granting permission to what technology writers call a data factory? Did you realise that all the big names – Google, Facebook, Twitter – are in essentially the same business? More to the point, did you care?

Those who know are few; those who care are fewer still. A government trying to seize its moment in the aftermath of the Paris massacres must wonder about that. Why should it endure a political fuss over GCQH or a so-called snooper’s charter when millions of voters happily surrender their secrets to strangers and Silicon Valley? For a prime minister, this must be galling.

For David Cameron and his supporters, every national security argument is reasonable. After all, they only want to keep us safe. If we’ve done nothing wrong, what is there to fear? The threat is real; the foe, as Paris showed, is implacable, ruthless, and as hard to predict as it is to counter. Above all, there is the Google paradox. If we care so little about privacy in our personal dealings, why fuss when a government bends a few principles to protect its citizens?

The first and obvious answer has something to do with another paradox, one of Mr Cameron’s own making. The prime minister who attended the Paris march -and turned it into a photo-opportunity alongside some disreputable “world leaders” – was standing up, so he said, for liberty against terrorism. Time after time, however, his only idea for defending freedom is still another piece of legislation that erodes freedoms. Voters might accept that – they might even demand it – but the fact is impossible to deny.

This time, within days of the Paris killings, Mr Cameron has returned to familiar themes. There must be no online hiding places for terrorists, he said on Monday. But the Prime Minister who has dreamed previously of shutting down websites on command – good luck with that – had a specific aspect of technology in mind. His target now, it seems, is encryption. Or as Mr Cameron would have it, the ability of suspicious types to communicate out of virtual earshot.

The Prime Minister said: “In extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter, to listen to someone’s call, to mobile communications … The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that? My answer to that question is: no, we must not.”

The ability to trawl mobile communications is already taken for granted, you’ll notice. Public consent, such as it is, for mass surveillance has come after the fact. What troubles the Government now is what Andrew Parker, director-general of MI5, described recently as “the growing gap between the increasingly challenging threat and the growing availability of capabilities to address it”.

Encrypted communications out there in the “dark places” of the internet sound like a conspirator’s dream. But encryption is also why so many innocent people use Facebook’s WhatsApp, Snapchat, Apple’s iMessage and others besides. They cannot be read by the security services, with or without a warrant, but they have become fundamental to millions of lives.

So what does Mr Cameron propose? To ban these services? That intrusion on modern freedoms will not go unnoticed. Does the Prime Minister mean instead to force the companies concerned to build “backdoors” to their encryption for the benefit of MI5? There’s a logical consequence: a breach designed for the security services would also become available, sooner or later, to criminals, hackers and terrorists. Among other things, you could wave goodbye to the security of online shopping.

Meanwhile, people who mean to do us harm can get hold of encryption and phones elsewhere in the world. Mr Cameron understands an internet problem when he sees one, but he does not seem to understand the internet. It could be put like this: a free society and a functioning modern economy need secure software as much as, if not more than, any terrorist. How does that weigh in the Prime Minister’s scales of liberty?

Noble as his motives might be, he is treading in the footsteps of regimes the world over that have tried and mostly failed to curb encryption. He also underestimates the guile of enemies. Hardly had the Prime Minister spoken than Twitter and YouTube accounts belonging to US Central Command were being hacked by a group claiming to support Islamic State.

Even if individual rights are no longer sacrosanct, there are big commercial issues where encryption is concerned. It is the heart, in fact, of modern business. So try telling a British bank with links around the world that its communications are vulnerable because MI5 demanded still more powers.

Besides, none of Mr Cameron’s protections would have prevented the Paris killings. France already has a surveillance regime every bit as rigorous as our own. It did no good whatever against three killers born and raised in the country who were well enough known to the security services. Armed with all sorts of powers to spy, block websites and jail on suspicion, the French government’s solution today is distinctly old-fashioned: 10,000 troops deployed to protect the people.

You can’t lock up the internet. You cannot, even if the idea made sense, eradicate encryption technology. You cannot create a surveillance state approaching the scope of the old East German Stasi and still claim to be protecting liberty. Above all, you cannot guarantee that powers acquired haphazardly and in haste will not be abused, or provide opportunities for your enemies.

Undeterred, Mr Cameron promises that, if his party wins at the General Election and is no longer impeded by Liberal Democrats, anti-encryption intercept powers will be joined to a revived communications data bill. GCHQ will no longer have to worry over controversy. Records of phone calls and online exchanges – but not their content, supposedly – will be available on demand.

So it goes on. In one sense, the parallels with Google and the rest are striking. No amount of data is ever enough, no power to gather information is ever sufficient. The difference might be that governments never admit that they have failed to use their existing powers well enough. The demand is always for still more. That cannot and must not continue.