In the wake of the Paris shootings, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said on Monday that if he wins the next election, he’ll put an end to communications that can’t be read by security services even with a warrant:
[I]n our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?
According to the Independent, Cameron compared messaging apps to letters and phone conversations, both of which can be read by security services in extreme situations, when under a warrant.
Cameron’s remarks were part of a pledge to revive the much-reviled Data Communications Bill – commonly known as the snoopers’ charter – which was blocked by Liberal Democrat opposition in 2012.
If Cameron’s proposed ban on encrypted communications apps was approved, then it could lead to a wide range of popular chat and social apps getting booted out of the country (how that would be accomplished being another question entirely and one which Cameron didn’t address).
A company that provides true end-to-end encrypted messaging can’t just hand over message content.
Such encryption, which protects both the bad guys plotting terrorist attacks and the rest of us who just want to talk without someone listening, is baked into messaging apps such as iMessage, FaceTime and WhatsApp.
WhatsApp, in fact, just added end-to-end encryption by default in November.
Just in time to be rushed out of Britain!
(Note that some news outlets have wrongly included Snapchat in the list of encrypted messaging apps that could be backdoored or banned if Cameron gets his way. As Snapchat notes in its guidelines for law enforcement, it can, under certain circumstances, fish messages out of its servers and hand over message content in response to a warrant.)
Beyond chat and social apps, an intolerance for encryption could jeopardize a vast array of people who use anonymising services (such as Tor) for legitimate purposes: activists; those researching sensitive topics; people circumventing censorship or warrantless surveillance; whistleblowers; military personnel; the list goes on.
Cameron hasn’t given much detail on his radical notion of a naked internet. Does he really envision stripping away all technologies that the government can’t read? Or just encrypted messaging?
As far as the snoopers’ charter goes, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that while he supports targeted measures to identify suspected extremists and, if necessary, to examine their communications, the charter goes far beyond that:
This is where the great confusion lies. Of course we should retain the right to steam open envelopes. The snoopers' charter is not the answer to that ... it didn't deal with the issue of when people mean to do us harm.
It wasn't about intercepting communications, it was about storing a record of all your social media activity, every site you've visited, of every individual in this country.
Cameron isn’t the only politician who’s willing to trade privacy in the war against extremists.
Mayor of London Boris Johnson also scoffed at the notion over the weekend, telling Sky News that privacy’s a fair price to pay for safety:
I'm not particularly interested in this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people's emails and mobile phone conversations. If they are a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.
What do you think? Is unlimited government surveillance a trade off you’d be willing to make if it could prevent tragedies such as the recent Paris attacks?
Or does it just mean that those the government want to listen to the most would figure out some other way to talk?
Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Image of David Cameron courtesy of Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com.
25 comments on “David Cameron wants to ban encrypted apps like iMessage and Whatsapp”
Do you trust Google / Facebook / Microsoft more than the British Government?
At least HM Government isn’t trying to sell us ads.
I’m not saying that I’m all in favour of complete transparency without any kind of warrant. But given recent events, I’m very much in favour of preventing terrorist activity.
Then stop invading other countries for their oil or any natural resources, stop trying to conquer every corner of the planet.
Countries already have their own country, they don’t need more space.
Maybe he should propose putting a tap on every phone line too.
Most (all?) terrorist outrages so far have been committed by people who were already known to the security services – certainly the recent Paris ones were.
By all means give the security services more money/resources so that they can monitor suspects more effectively.
But it’s counter-productive to swamp them in yet more data – which compromises everybody’s privacy without making us any safer.
British security forces had already identified the killers of Lee Rigby before they made their move. French authorities had been watching the men involved in the Paris atrocities. In fact, it generally emerges that the security forces were quite capable of identifying and watching dangerous suspects without having any more powers than they have already been granted. These atrocities happened because of failures by the authorities to keep up their surveillance … to do the good old fashioned detective work which leads to arrests and detention. Giving these people more powers would most likely not have changed the outcome, because 100% security is a pipe dream. Every incursion into privacy and digital security for the rest of us means achieving the bad guys’ aims on their behalf. We also know from experience that powers are never constrained to the use they are supposed to be for. Existing powers have been used to allow a frightening number of people to access our data. How about local authorities checking you out to see if you really DO qualify for sending your children to that school you want? That really has happened already. Once controls are relaxed and powers increased, everyone wants a go. Do we want to live in that society?
So are they saying that if only they could read all encrypted communications (with a warrant), the Charlie Hebdo thing wouldn’t have happened? Or do they just always wait for something bad to happen somewhere in the world, and then use that as an excuse to attack privacy?
I really don’t know where to start as to just how wrong this is!
Is he really implying that anyone who downloads and uses an App that uses encryption will be breaking the law? Seriously, Off The Record would make you a criminal! Well I guess that would solve the problem with leaks from Tory H.Q.
Just how are you going to enforce this anyway? Maybe we could have a National Conservatism iPad and Android burning day? What if you already have these Apps installed and forget to take them off? Would you be charged with possession of a controlled App?
What about all the legitimate uses of encryption – you know the kind that government has to have if they’re using laptops and USB drives, especially when they leave them on the train with sensitive data?
Aren’t we living in a democracy? Wouldn’t we chastise another nation for spying on all their citizens without their consent?
Surely even with such a Draconian backward law, the terrorists / criminals / opposition / people I don’t like / you looked at me funny / whatever, would find other ways to communicate? Would it really stop terrorism? Wouldn’t better border controls prevent weapons getting into the country? Hmmm, didn’t Stalin do this route?
It’s all fine and dandy claiming this is for anti-terrorism and everyone jumps on the bandwagon but it can be abused in the future – governments change, political parties change and leaders change. What’s to stop the government abusing these powers? I mean we have already seen local councils using anti-terrorism laws being used to spy on people’s wheely bins! So it does and will happen.
Just how would anybody be able to challenge this at a later date if every communication between your solicitor and yourself was being monitored?
Before computers came along didn’t we manage to do this better by applying common sense, good old fashioned detective work, courts of law, warrants and proper surveillance? You know the kind of stuff that got results.
So, free speech for everyone….. as long as your government can spy on what you are saying and potentially use it against you.
I’m very much in favour of preventing governments looking at my mesaging in light of slightly less recent events.
Yeah, It’s not going to be easy to resolve the issues of CIPA compliance, law enforcement, homeland security, and privacy.
Surprise Surprise that such an announcement would fit in after events such as the terrorist attack in Paris. It makes you wonder of all these conspiracies people say about attacks being funded by governments to impose new rules or to justify wars etc.
Still, terrorists will always find means to hide their messages. No one can deny though that probably some plans will be ruined if all communication is unencrypted. That doesn’t make it OK though, after all the Snowden story revealed what exactly governments do with people’s data and with the help of technology
I’m not against the law enforcements listening to the bad guys when a judge has approved it, but banning encrypted services is not the solution. That would mean that the goverments and anyone else will be able to listen to any conversation.
The solution should be that those services are regulated and offer the to the law agencies the means to be able to tap the suspects’ conversations, as it is described that snapchat does.
It’s worrying that the goverments are using the Paris attacks to deploy measures ‘1984 big brother’ like.
“[I]n our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” –David Cameron
I suppose that by “read” he also means “heard” or “understood”.
I wonder if this would extend to private conversations. Would the government be permitted–with a warrant of course–to embed a sensor and transmitter in my jaw or tooth so that they can intercept whispered communications between myself and my conspirators (or wife and kids)?
Though this may be a little far-fetched, the principle is the same.
“Is unlimited government surveillance a trade off you’d be willing to make if it could prevent tragedies such as the recent Paris attacks?”
Chances are slim, that the if-condition is or can be fulfilled. So we would be trading something big against something tiny.
There is not the slightest evidence – not even the claim by total surveillance promoters – that the terrorist used encrypted apps.
Your questions transports the usual message the big friends of surveilance try to promote: “With privacy there is no security.” The other way around it would make more sense: “Without privacy there is no security.” May sound unfamiliar, but if you give it some time for thoughts, it should become clearer.
There is another variant of this conflict, promoted by those who would like to have an eye on everyone – be it out of commercial or of political interest: “If you have nothing to hide, then you can lay out openly everything about you.” This is the biggest deception in the privacy discussion. Everybody has something he wants not to share with another person, no matter how close you are. If you deny that for yourself, then you better think again.
“Is unlimited government surveillance a trade off you’d be willing to make if it could prevent tragedies such as the recent Paris attacks?”
If it could, then maybe. But it can’t and won’t.
The Charlie Hebdo obscenity was not made possible by encryption, it was because the security forces had too many suspect jihadists to be able to watch/listen to them all and so the Kouachis were de-prioritised. As far as I know the murder of Lee Rigby, the London tube bombings, and many other attacks around the world have been carried out by people already known to the security forces but not closely enough surveilled. They can’t adequately deal with the volume of information they are already getting, so no.
But as you imply, Cameron has no idea how to do what he says, and it seems to me he has no understanding of the technology. Can’t see it actually happening even if the cons (French word) do get back into power.
Je suis Charlie.
I can live with it if: –
I can listen, read and discuss (if necessary) the emails , phone records, conversations of everybody else including Government (All parts of it) Businesses (all types).
What is good for the goose is good for the gander
Such a dangerous line of thinking by Cameron.
When the day comes (and it will) for possible ubiquitous monitoring (from the net, to the mosquito size – and virtually undetectable – mobile/flying recording device, coupled with massive AI) for pennies, laws like the one being proposed will open every aspect of ones life for recording and analysis.
Tell me we haven’t had problems with the privacy of records the government now keeps. (Medical records anyone?)
Life comes with risks. The promise of a risk free life is an unreachable utopia. Yet, we are willing to trade so much for a mere promise of such, but fail to see the downside risk in that trade.
The Independent quoted David Cameron, UK Prime Minister as saying “According to the Independent, Cameron compared messaging apps to letters and phone conversations, both of which can be read by security services in extreme situations, when under a warrant.”
Completely bogus argument. You can certainly send an encrypted letter–this silly response assumes all postal mail is in plaintext. You can also carry on a telephone conversation using a coded word exchange–this was done by both sides in World War II radio transmissions. “Golf Friday at noon” could really mean “Bomb London Tuesday at 2200.”
Is it any wonder why we geeks have so little respect for shallow-thinking politicians?
Alright, it’s a fair cop. I accept the very salient arguments above.
WTF! I don’t anyone to read my communication or data. Encrypt and be damned!
Stay out of my GD Business.
How Cameron thinks terrorists communicate:
iMessage – “Hi Terrorist A, Terrorist B here – let’s meet up tomorrow at 3:30, outside MacDonalds on the High Street – bring semtex and a bag of nails and we’ll go blow up the police station”
How they more likely do it:
Draft created on shared webmail account – message would read “Uncle Zebra, meetup #bs239 datetime #xr27 target #237zulu, bring standard kit #gf17”. Would read that except encrypted offline with GPG.
How’s breaking iMessage privacy helping there?
Absolutely agree with @Jake. The only thing this measure will do is harm the public. It will do nothing whatsoever to stop bad guys from talking in a way that the government cannot understand. They have been doing it for thousands of years. Computers have only made it a little easier. If some of these tools are ::laughs at the absurdity:: “Taken away”, the bad guys will just go write their own that the government has no control over or will fall back to other techniques. And I refuse to believe that an official with the wherewithal to reach the head of any country is does not fully understand this. This is nothing but a transparent attempt to get access to data they cant see now to try to uncover anything they don’t like. They have no illusions that this will remotely help against actual extremists.
The leader of a democracy announcing that taking away freedom is the only way to protect freedom is absurd. Quashing free speech was exactly what the criminals that did this wanted. Why does Cameron want to help them?
More importantly, why does Cameron want to help every petty crook and organized crime ring out there to perpetrate even more massive identity theft by taking away the most effective and responsible means we have to stopping them? Is there something we should know about his finances? =)
I don’t know where some of these people are from, but the USA is not a democracy, it’s a Republic. There is a difference as democracies don’t last very long…. However they have no evidence that this covert activity does any good at all! Tell us of some of the things that they have foiled, maybe we could justify (I doubt it) some, but only with warrants.
I was limited on what type of algorithm I could code at a large banking facility and that was only in house encryption, by government law. This is a no brainier and they need to stay out of this data netting.