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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.

  • das_stig
    Just more proof the Cameron is a moron and just doesn't understand that the public don't trust security services to abuse their powers. I bet government, mp's etc comms will still be encrypted to ensure they don't get caught doing anything illegal or underhanded. Vote UKIP last chance for the UK !
  • HEXiT
    while i agree with you stig ukip isnt the answer there even more right wing that the conservatives.
    all the parties apart from the liberals(and even thats doubtful) want to do this in some form. as they think its a vote winner. but after seen a few polls taken the opposite is true. we already know the uk gov is spying on us citizens to bypass the anti snooping laws the u.s have and in return the u.s is doing the same for the uk. completely bypassing the needs for warrants.

    that being said none of this surveillance has shown any results of note. they didnt stop the boston bombings even though they were forewarned nor did they manage to stop the latest in franc. again they already had actionable intelligence (the guys who committed the crime were actually being actively watched. they were already on no fly lists for instance so were a known threat.

    as for the warrants being needed to snoop thats utter b.s. as snowden showed us.
    give governments power and sooner or later they abuse it and this kind of power is ripe for abuse.

    1 other thing i would like to add is whats the point of banning these few apps? the people claim they need to snoop on would just move to a less obvious, more niche app which they likely havent even heard of. so in reality its a pointless exercise with no real intelligence benefit other than invading joe publics privacy to see if they are swallowing what there being fed which is a massive corporate lie.

    call my a cynical but ca(moron) really doesn't like the INTERNET. first he demands the isp's to block sites he and his ilk deem unsuitable. they go for the easy targets first torrents then porn, now instant messaging. next will be vpns and proxys, after that its pretty much open season to block so called radical news outlets like live leak who don't follow the corporate line.

    im pretty sure this is deeper than what we are seeing here and the start of something we should all be outraged at. but as long as he claims to be protecting our children most will allow these infringements to go unchecked until its to late and we end up in a police state where your guilty even when you are innocent.
  • Drazek
    haha! Ca(moron)! I love it... i'm going to wear it out now.

    Ca(moron) has no idea what he's doing does he? - does he even realise that a back door for the UK = a back door for the rest of the world and a back door for pirates, hackers, terrorists, paedophiles, etc? - would you like it if the pictures of your kids that you had sent your parents were lifted by someone through this 'back door'? no Ca(moron)! no! bad Ca(moron)!

    It's people like Ca(moron) who have no idea how the internet or technology works, who constantly seek to shackle the free web that really grind my gears! I'm glad I didn't vote Conservative in the last election, I just wish more people would wake up and realise that all 3 political powerhouses are full of crap. - I also don't think UKIP are the answer to all our problems, despite what Farage says. I'd sooner vote green party, alas they'll never win.. but how interesting would it be if they did? either way, my vote goes to the man who wishes to keep the internet free, open and secure for our families.

    p.s. this explains the implications of what cameron is proposing:
  • jldevoy
    The problem is that no matter the guarantees we have already seen that authorities will abuse ANY law to suit their own ends; we even had councils in England using new anti terror laws to spy on parents for lying about being in school catchment areas.
  • HEXiT reposting this link as it is the best rebuttal i have read.
  • Jill Scharr
    Great BoingBoing link Drazek! Doctorow does a great job of laying out the implications of Cameron's demands.