Any thought British members of parliament may have had about banning online anonymity systems such as Tor would not only be unwise but also “technologically infeasible,” according to the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).
The group’s report is a potential source of embarrassment for Prime Minister David Cameron who, just two months ago, said encryption should be outlawed in the UK unless the government was allowed back door access.
Following a pattern of tightening security after the fact, the PM made his comments in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January, asking whether we should “allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?” His argument was that strong encryption posed problems for the security and intelligence communities, making it harder for them to track and foil terrorists.
The IT security community was quick to react, suggesting that Cameron had little comprehension of encryption, how it worked or why it was necessary. Much ire was directed his way and more than one company suggested that doing business in Britain under a regime where encryption was banned would be too troublesome.
Fortunately, the POST also sees things a little differently to the leader of Her Majesty’s government.
The Parliamentary Office advised MPs that there was “widespread agreement that banning online anonymity systems altogether is not seen as an acceptable policy option in the UK”.
In respect of the darknet – described by the prime minister as a “digital hiding place for child abusers” – the report said that the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) of the UK National Crime Agency referenced Tor as playing “only a minor role in the online viewing and distribution of indecent images of children”.
In fact CEOP went further, saying that Tor is actually less popular among paedophiles because of the way in which it slows the downloading of images.
As for TOR itself, the report cited “technical challenges” as it referenced similar moves made by the Chinese government when it attempted to block users from using The Onion Router to access unauthorised websites.
That, the report said, had proven to be difficult as the network continually added “bridges” that were “very difficult to block,” allowing people to continue accessing Tor.
Beyond a brief mention of terrorism, the report highlighted how Tor Hidden Services could be used to create underground markets such as the infamous Silk Road, as well as more benign uses including protecting journalistic sources, whistleblowing and – our favourite – protecting a user’s privacy.
The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology paper did admit that Tor Hidden Services could be used to create online criminal communities but added that “identifying criminals using Tor is time-consuming and it requires a high degree of skill”.
Based on such findings, and an impending General Election, it seems likely that David Cameron may be persuaded to back down on his threat to ban encrypted services that don’t feature a backdoor.
Featured image: Tor Project