British Prime Minister David Cameron has come under fire for promising to ban encrypted and ephemeral messaging apps if he is re-elected later this year. His comments came just a few days after the Paris terrorist attacks.
In a speech earlier this week, Cameron pledged new surveillance powers to combat terrorist communications. “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?” he said, reports The Independent.
He did not name any particular apps but WhatsApp has come under the spotlight, which late last year put end to end encryption in place for its communications.
Cameron is promising a “comprehensive piece of legislation” that shuts down terrorists’ “safe spaces”.
The comments also follow a statement from several EU leaders that recommended greater surveillance in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Cameron’s comments have not been well received, with tech journalists, digital rights groups, and other politicians not only criticizing the move but also questioning its viability.
“Cameron’s plans appear dangerous, ill-thought out and scary. Having the power to undermine encryption will have consequences for everyone’s personal security,” says Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Right Group, a regular critic of surveillance and digital policies. “It could affect not only our personal communications but also the security of sensitive information such as bank records, making us all more vulnerable to criminal attacks.”
This is seen as the latest chapter in the push and pull between authorities and tech companies over encryption. The FBI last year criticized Apple for encrypting its devices and not allowing backdoors.
— Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) January 13, 2015
Activist Cory Doctorow has also joined the conversation and pulled apart Cameron’s claims in an op-ed for Boing Boing on Wednesday. “David Cameron doesn’t understand technology very well, so he doesn’t actually know what he’s asking for,” he writes, explaining that there’s no such thing as a backdoor that only lets the ‘good guys’ in.
In order for such measures to work, explains Doctorow, all British people would need to only use software created within the UK, a system similar to those in Russia, Syria, and Iran. You can the read the explainer in more detail here.
Meanwhile The Guardian’s James Ball suggests that such a ban would effectively shut down Britain’s ecommerce business.
“If Cameron is proposing an end to encryption in the UK, then any information sent across the internet would be open for any company, government, or script kiddie with 10 minutes “hacking” experience to access. It would spell the end of e-commerce, private online communications and any hope of the UK having any cybersecurity whatsoever.”
Which of the City banks has called Cameron and calmly informed him that banning encryption makes ecommerce an impossibility?
— Mark Pesce (@mpesce) January 13, 2015
Independent security expert Graham Cluley said Cameron “is living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks that this is a sensible idea”.
“[N]o it wouldn’t be possible to implement properly,” he added, while Vice didn’t mince its words when describing Cameron’s comments saying he “has made possibly the worst play in history if he’s still hoping to hook in some of that cool youth vote”.
Companies like WhatsApp and Snapchat have not yet commented in detail on the proposals.