The British prime minister David Cameron has suggested that if his Conservative Party wins the upcoming general election, it will not allow encrypted communications that cannot be read by the security services.
On Sunday, Cameron told ITV News: “I think we cannot allow modern forms of communication to be exempt from the ability, in extremis, with a warrant signed by the home secretary, to be exempt from being listened to. That is my very clear view and if I am prime minister after the next election I will make sure we legislate accordingly.” He repeated the sentiment again on Monday (video embedded below.)
The Tory leader has already said that he wants to bring back the Communications Data Bill, a.k.a. the “Snooper’s Charter,” if his party wins the upcoming general election in May. This is not news as such; the only reason the bill is on ice is that the Conservatives’ current coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, refuse to allow it to be tabled. (The Lib Dems did, however, allow the “emergency” passage of the DRIP Act, which brought in the main planks of the Snooper’s Charter – mandatory data retention for various kinds of internet communications – on a temporary basis.)
However, the Tories’ rhetoric has predictably ramped up in the wake of the Paris killings. The idea of banning secure communications is a recent development (though it follows on from the frustration of U.K. intelligence chiefs) and is utterly flawed. Even armed with a warrant from the Home Secretary, security services would be stymied by a basic WhatsApp text chat, an email exchange properly encrypted using PGP, or an [company]Apple[/company] iMessage or FaceTime conversation – all of which use end-to-end encryption.
These, we must assume, would be the services that Cameron would not “allow” if voted back in. However, it is hard to see the British government succeeding in stopping the use of such tools. Even if (a big “if”) the government got some kind of concession from the big commercial players (key escrow?), systems such as PGP don’t even have a centralized company behind the curtains. And then there’s the issue of anonymity — monitoring the communications of someone using the anonymized browsing tool Tor, for example, is difficult to say the least. Would online anonymity also be banned?
It’s just not a sensible idea, but that doesn’t always stop the introduction of new laws. Labour leader Ed Miliband, the head of the opposition, has said he would resist the immediate reintroduction of the Snooper’s Charter and would give a “cautious and considered” response to security chiefs asking for more powers. That doesn’t mean he won’t cave in — Labour has a bad record on this stuff, and the current government took power in 2010 promising to “reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion.” But, particularly after Snowden, this is clearly going to be a live issue on the campaign trail.