How much of Linux will be illegal in the UK?

This week I've been in the UK again, giving a talk about Lumicall and JSCommunicator in Manchester last night and a talk about Free Real-Time Communications at the mini-DebConf in Cambridge on the weekend of 7-8 November.

An interesting backdrop to these activities has been a national debate about Internet privacy. The UK Government and police are demanding laws to mandate back doors in all communications products and services.

It leaves me wondering about a range of issues:

Island mentality in the Internet age

Politics aside, what would this mean from a technical perspective? The overwhelming consensus among experts is that secure technology that people use and expect in many other parts of the world, including the US, simply won't be compatible with the products and services that UK residents will be permitted to use. Bigger companies like Google and Apple may be able to offer differentiated versions of their services for the UK but smaller companies or companies who have built their reputation on technical excellence simply won't be able or willing to offer crippled versions of their products with backdoors for the UK. The UK's island geography will become a metaphor for its relationship with the global marketplace.

The first thing to take note of is that encryption and authentication are closely related. Public-key cryptography, for example, simply swaps the public key and private key when being used to authenticate instead of encrypt. An effective and wide-reaching legal ban on encryption would also potentially prohibit the algorithms used for authentication.

Many methods of distributing software, including packages distributed through Linux distributions or apps distributed through the Google Play store are authenticated with such algorithms. This is often referred to as a digital signature. Digital signatures help ensure that software is not corrupted, tampered with by hackers or infected by viruses when it is transmitted and stored in the public Internet.

To correctly implement these mechanisms for installing software safely, every device running an operating system such as Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora or Android needs to include some software modules implementing the algorithms. In Linux, for example, I'm referring to packages like GnuPG, OpenSSL and GnuTLS. Without these components, it would be hard or even impossible for developers in the UK to contribute or publish new versions of their software. Users of the software would not be able to securely receive vital updates to their systems.

An opportunity for free software?

Some people say that any publicity can be good publicity. Now the Government has put the ball into play, people promoting secure solutions based on free software have an opportunity to participate in the debate too.

While laws may or may not change, principles don't. It is a perfect time to remind users that many of the principles of software freedom were written down many years ago, before the opportunity for mass surveillance came into existence. These principles remain relevant to this day. The experts who developed these principles back then are also far more likely to offer insights and trustworthy solutions for the road ahead.

If you'd like to discuss these issues or ask questions, please join the Free-RTC mailing list.