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Tories' anti-encryption stance 'may spark exodus of tech start-ups'

Brighton-based Ind.ie will leave the UK over the government's anti-encryption and surveillance plans

Digital Britain

A British tech start-up is leaving the UK because it's scared the government will insert backdoors into its software after the Conservative party won the election.

Ind.ie is a Brighton-based start-up trying to build socially responsible social networks and messaging applications, but made clear it's heading abroad following the Tories' formation of a majority government

"Following the election of a Tory government with a mandate to further mass surveillance, we're leaving the UK to avoid the possibility of having to add backdoors to our products at Ind.ie," wrote co-founder Aral Balkan in a blog post. 

He cited the revitalised plans to roll out the so-called Snooper's Charter, which sparked a backlash from privacy advocates last week - the proposed legislation would give the government easier - and legal - access to people's personal data.

Balkan also referred to Prime Minister David Cameron's anti-encryption comments before the election, the scrapping of the Human Rights Act and the possible exit from the EU as reasons behind his firm's departure, saying all would hurt his business - while the latter would mean he'd have to leave Britain, as he's a French citizen.

"I have no intention of waiting two years in limbo to find out whether or not I can remain here and Ind.ie won't be putting down roots in a place with such uncertainty," he added, saying the company is considering Germany, Iceland and other European countries to relocate to. 

Will others follow suit? Security analyst Graham Cluley thinks so. 

"I suspect Ind.ie won't be the last firm to make the same decision to leave if the UK government's plans for internet surveillance go ahead," he wrote in a blog post. "After all, if you were a large financial firm in the City of London would you really feel comfortable knowing that your communications were not secure?"

Welcome support

Of course, many start-ups welcomed the Tory success in the election: before the vote, a host of 90 wrote an open letter praising the Conservative support for tech firms, via enterprise investment schemes, tax credits and more. 

"Just as important as individual schemes has been the government's attitude," the letter read. "It has enthusiastically supported start-ups, job-makers and innovators and the need to build a British culture of entrepreneurialism to rival America's."

Such financial support looks likely to continue: ahead of the election, the Tories promised to cut through red tape to make it easier for small businesses to operate and triple its Start Up Loans programme. 

Bad for business? 

However, weakening security and therefore trust in British tech could hurt the bottom lines of start-ups and other IT firms. Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge, told our sister title PC Pro that "nobody is going to trust a UK business... you would be mad to buy security products in Britain, everyone knows it."

His concerns were echoed by Ian Brown, associate director of the Cyber Security Centre at the University of Oxford, who said that cloud firms would be hardest hit. "That will be one of the first questions any company putting cloud facilities in the UK will be asked by customers," he said last year.

"How can you persuade your customers that those internal links are encrypted to a standard that will withhold against this kind of eavesdropping?"

Security aside, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales called for Britain to stay "welcome and open to immigrants", noting that half the programmers at his mobile phone firm The People's Operator come from across Europe. 

Time to go?

For some, including Ind.ie, the promise of loans and less bureacracy may not be enough to overcome the threat of having to build in backdoors for security services, leaving users at risk. 

"If we stay, we cannot guarantee that we will not be forced to jeopardise the integrity of the tools that we're building," Balkan added. "By leaving, we have a better chance of succeeding in creating the tools that will help you in your battle also."

Whether other firms follow suit remains to be seen, but the return of the Snooper's Charter, which would see ISPs and other comms providers forced to hold onto our messages to make it easier for security services to access them, has already drawn criticism from privacy groups

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