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British Prime Minister Wants to Ban Secure Messaging

UK Prime Minster David Cameron calls for a ban on secure encryption.

UK Prime Minster David Cameron calls for a ban on secure encryption.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday (Jan. 12) that if his Conservative Party were to be re-elected as the dominant party in the United Kingdom's general election later this year, he'd work to ban all encrypted communications that can't be read by police — a category that would likely include services such as Apple Messages, TextSecure and Wickr, and possibly Snapchat and WhatApp as well.

Cameron's pledge came less than a week after terrorist attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris supermarket killed 16 people. But it also comes as consumer-grade messaging services strengthen their encryption to the point where not even the companies providing the services can read the messages.

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Speaking in Nottingham in the English Midlands, Cameron said strongly encrypted messaging services unwittingly provide a "safe space" for terrorists. He called for legislation that would give security and intelligence agencies the ability to read any encrypted communications used in the U.K. — a backdoor, so to speak.

"In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the Home Secretary personally, we cannot read?" Cameron said.

Such means of communication already exist. Not only does just about every form of online communication use some form of encryption, but the National Secuity Agency documents leaked by Edward Snowden have spurred many companies to provide even more secure encryption,  configuring it so that not even the companies themselves can read communications sent through their servers.

This kind of encryption is often called "end-to-end encryption" in that only a sender and recipient can read a message, but not any parties in between. Messaging services that already implement this include: BlackBerry Messenger Protected, CryptoCat, FaceTime, iMessage, Signal, SilentText, TextSecure and Wickr, according to a study done by the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Skype, SnapChat, Secret, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp and Yahoo Messenger do not have end-to-end encryption, according to the same EFF study, but it's likely that some will implement it in coming years.

In the United States, the FBI refers to the phenomenon as the "going dark" problem, and the bureau has repeatedly sought to make software-based communications subject to the Communications Enforcement for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which guarantees that police have some way of listening to any telephone conversation (including on Skype and other VoIP services).

Not everyone in the current British government is behind Cameron in his mission to ban secure encryption. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives' junior partner in the ruling coalition, sees a ban on secure encryption as an infringement of citizens' rights.

"The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression, and then in the next, advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens," Clegg said at the Irish embassy in London Monday night, hours after Cameron's speech.

Without Liberal Democratic support, Cameron's proposed legislation might need an absolute Conservative majority to pass in the next Parliament.

Cameron said the power to crack encrypted communications would need a warrant signed by the Home Secretary, the cabinet minister overseeing all domestic affairs in the U.K.

"We have a better system for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of," Cameron said.

Cameron previously slammed encrypted chat apps in 2011, in the wake of a series of riots in London. These riots were called "BlackBerry riots" because protestors relied heavily on mobile devices, especially BlackBerry Messenger, to organize them.