Ed Vaizey, minister of state for culture and the digital economy, has played down reports that the UK government wants to ban or weaken encryption in the wake of the publication of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill.
"We don't have any problem with people encrypting. We understand that encryption is a way of keeping your data safe. We encourage encryption so I don't really know what the ‘debate' is," he said during a recent roundtable event at Westminster attended by V3.
"As far as I'm concerned, the prime minister saying he wanted to ban encryption, I don't know where that came from. As I have said in public many times, it is frustrating that when tech issues arise there becomes a binary debate about what the government wants to do and what the tech community thinks should be done, and there is to a certain extent a kind of attitude in the tech community of ‘What do these people know?'.
His comments follow growing concerns expressed by law enforcement chiefs across the world from MI5 to the FBI. Both organisations have warned publicly that encryption hampers the ability to catch criminals.
The government's understanding of encryption was heavily criticised by techUK after publication of the Investigatory Powers proposals.
"Although the government has been at pains to stress that it is not restricting or weakening encryption, and that all requirements in the bill regarding the 'removal of electronic protection' are already provided for in current legislation, further scrutiny around this is needed," the organisation said.
"The draft bill could be interpreted as giving the government the power to request companies to compromise their software in order to make encryption less secure in order to give an effect to a warrant."
Furthermore, UK prime minister David Cameron has been criticised in the past for indicating that encryption, particularly end-to-end, should be weakened to allow law enforcement to request communications content.
When asked in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January whether he had any plans to ban services that use strong protection measures, he indicated that he was considering it.
"I will make sure it is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes sure we do not allow terrorists safe space to communicate with each other. Are we going to allow a means of communication which it simply isn't possible to read? My answer to that question is no, we must not," he said as reported by The New York Times.
The most recent terrorist atrocities in Paris have only reignited the debate.
Now, after a number of high-profile cyber breaches this year, including at TalkTalk, JD Wetherspoon and Target, the UK government has stepped up its efforts to combat the increasing cyber threat.
A top priority
"Protecting the UK in cyber space is a top priority. That's why we're investing £1.9bn in cyber security initiatives including a new National Cyber Centre and an ambitious new skills programme," Vaizey said during the roundtable event.
"To make sure we have skilled people to address future cyber security challenges, we've provided £500,000 to universities across the UK to improve cyber security education and training."
UK firms now realise the scope of the threats they face, according to the minister. "Clearly the threat is increasing in the digital age. All businesses now have to regard themselves as a digital business," he said.
"Overall we want cyber security not to be seen as just an IT issue you leave to the IT department - it's got to be at the top of the agenda in the boardroom too."
Russell Poole, UK managing director at data centre firm Equinix, echoed the view that cyber crime is now a problem for the entire business.
"Cyber security is not just an issue for the IT industry; this is something that affects everyone now. This isn't just something that companies have to do, it's something we all need to do and it's clearly an increasing trend. Barely a week goes by without us hearing about another hack or another attack," he said also speaking at the event.
"The attack surface is increasing. There are more things connected to the internet and more opportunities for the hackers to go after.
"On the one hand you have this race between good and evil - the arms war on the internet - and the question, the challenge, for anybody thinking about IT strategies now is how you take that into consideration while also pursuing new technology."
Poole explained that he would like to see a "more joint approach" from the government and industry to tackle cyber crime.
"We will do our part to help the UK government and business work together to keep IT infrastructures compliant, safe and under control. Cyber attacks will not go away soon and we all know that it is a growing issue in the UK. It is essential that cyber security is now a top priority for UK businesses," he said.
"I welcome the recent government cyber security initiatives and actions which are being taken to ensure that our industries and businesses are prepared for cyber attacks."
The comment come in the same week the European Commission (EC) agreed tough new data protection laws, including the potential for fines totaling four percent of global turnover, which may force firms to take security more seriously.
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