Cameron Takes Hard Line on Encrypted Communications

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is standing for re-election, has vowed to ban personal encrypted communications apps such as Snapchat and WhatsApp if he is voted in.

He also will allow UK government security agencies to monitor communications, with warrants signed by the Home Secretary.

“The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe,” Cameron declared earlier this week.

Myopia Rules, OK!

Cameron’s proposal triggered a storm of criticism.

“We’ve seen proposals similar to this before, but never as unbelievably shortsighted,” commented Joseph Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

The FBI has been arguing for years that it needs backdoors into encrypted communications and devices, but Cameron is “going even further to demand no one can have walls,” Hall told TechNewsWorld. “He seems to want to ban confidential communications entirely.”

The proposal “is particularly boneheaded,” because to ban applications such as SnapChat and WhatsApp, the UK would “effectively have to ban mathematics,” Hall continued.

“I can write the equation for how to protect a message from government surveillance on a piece of paper, and it’s not really hard to write or distribute code that does this,” pointed out Danny O’Brien, international director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Without strong cryptography, anyone can intercept content, O’Brien told TechNewsWorld, so governments can “either mandate that no one has secure messaging, except for criminals who are going to use it anyway, or that because we need a secure financial and communications infrastructure, we should work on other ways to fight terrorism.”

Other Alternatives

One of the other ways to fight terrorism is to keep a close eye on suspected terrorists.

The French authorities in 2010 reportedly placed under surveillance members of the Islamic extremist cell linked to the gunmen who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, but they slacked off after a while.

A Marriage Made in Spy Heaven

Intelligence officials have made the argument that increased surveillance of suspects and perhaps even the imposition of widespread surveillance of the general population are crucial in the fight against terror.

However, such widespread surveillance by the NSA has been notoriously fruitless in the U.S.

Further, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters has spoofed LinkedIn pages to target engineers at a Belgian carrier and apparently aims to be able to track mobile phones worldwide, according to Der Spiegel.

GCHQ reportedly has worked with the United States National Security Agency to make a secret map of the Internet and Web users, The Intercept reported.

The NSA tracks 5 billion cellphone locations worldwide, and since it shares a lot of data with GCHQ, it’s possible the UK intelligence agency also has access to much of that data.

Further, German researchers recently demonstrated that vulnerabilities in Signaling System 7 (SS7) telephony signaling protocols let third parties listen in to cellphone calls and intercept text messages despite encryption.

Cameron’s Sound and Fury

“I doubt many governments, especially the U.S. government, would agree that [Cameron’s plan] is a good idea,” the CDT’s Hall said.

If they did, the open source nature of much of the pieces of apps like SnapChat and WhatsApp make it easy for people to create such applications themselves, and that could lead to a black market for them, Hall argued.

“Anyone in the UK or out of it could use freely available alternatives” like PGP and OTR to secure their communications, the EFF’s O’Brien noted. Banning encrypted apps “would devastate their industry’s trust in online communications, leading to a mass exodus of those sectors out of the UK.”

Other governments have proactively limited or killed innovative communications applications and methodologies, Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

“If Cameron succeeds,” he said, “UK citizens can take comfort in their government acting with all the foresight and wisdom of other beacons of freedom, including China, Russia, Egypt and Iran.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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