The British prime minister David Cameron has said that he wants to impose new surveillance legislation on the UK that would outlaw certain forms of encrypted digital communication, a move which has led civil liberties groups to voice concern that this could lead to serious abuse of powers.
The law, which Cameron pledges to bring in if he wins the 2015 election, means that communication which the security services can’t read would be made illegal. Such a move could see a series of popular messaging platforms blocked, including WhatsApp, Snapchat, Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime.
Speaking at an event in the East Midlands on Monday, Cameron said he recognised such powers were “very intrusive” but that they were necessary to help counter the growing threat of terrorism in the UK. He said such a move would be “absolutely right”.
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“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, that we cannot read? Up until now, governments of this country have said no, we must not have such a means of communication,” he said.
Cameron continued: “That is why, in extremis, it has been possible to read someone’s letter. That is why… it’s been possible to listen in to someone’s telephone call. That is why the same has been applied to mobile communications.
“But the question remains: are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn’t possible to do that? My answer is no, we are not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”
Whilst it is already illegal to refuse to surrender your passwords or encryption keys if asked by the police, this law is not particularly useful if someone refuses to speak, or cannot be found in the first place.
Some products already contain certain kinds of encryption software which can bypass this problem, allowing law enforcement access when required. However many do not, including Whatsapp and iMessage, and so these kind of products could be banned if Cameron goes ahead with his plans.
PGP is another popular encryption tool – used frequently by journalists and whistleblowers – that enables secure communication between people by exchanging public encryption ‘keys’. There is no way to decrypt a user’s communications, even with a warrant, unless you have their private key.
This is not the first speech Cameron has made in recent days in which he’s outlined his plans to change privacy laws in the UK. Speaking in Paris on Sunday, following the unity march to honour the 17 victims who died in the Paris attacks, Cameron said he wanted to “modernise” the law to help tackle the “poisonous death cult” of Islamic extremists.
The Draft Communications Data Bill, nicknamed the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, was first proposed by home secretary Theresa May in 2012, and would require internet service providers and mobile phone companies to maintain records – but not content – of each user’s internet browsing history, emails, internet gaming, mobile messaging services for 12 months.
Previous plans for the data bill were blocked by the Liberal Democrats but Cameron has now stressed that he would ensure the legislation was passed if the Conservatives won the general election in May.
“That is my very clear view and if I am prime minister after the next election I will make sure we legislate accordingly. Obviously we are in a coalition. We have made progress on this issue by passing the new law which makes sure we protect some of the abilities we have to stop terrorists,” he said, speaking to media in Paris.
Cameron’s announcement has been met with hostility from many civil liberties campaigners. Director of Big Brother Watch Emma Carr said that it was “wholly unacceptable” for the tragedy in Paris to be used as an excuse to call for a return to the Snoopers’ Charter.
“It is the wrong solution and would divert resources from focused surveillance operations at a time when the agencies are already struggling to cope with the volume of information available,” she said.
“The government is introducing legislation to solve the important problem of who is using a specific Internet Protocol address, but the powers within the Snoopers’ Charter go too far, as recognised by a number of political figures and two parliamentary committees.”
Carr continued: “As we have seen with RIPA, legislation may be introduced with the most noble of intentions but if oversight and authorisation is poor, you easily end up in a situation where a vast number of public authorities are using the powers for investigations that were never originally intended when the legislation was passed.”
“An example being local authorities using it to watch dog fowlers, or the police using it to access journalists’ phone records,” she continued, referring to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, set up to regulate the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation, and covering the interception of communications.
“Rather than the powers being for targeted surveillance of suspected terrorists and criminals, it allows for the mass surveillance of an entire population,” she also said.
According to Carr, the most important way to avoid a Paris-style attack, is to ensure that there are adequate resources to monitor those identified as potential threats: “That is not currently the case, as identified in the example of the Woolwich murder. The powers should be there to gather information, legally and with oversight and accountability, to monitor those targeted as being a threat to society. This does not require powers that would put an entire populations communications under surveillance,” she said.
Speaking to the GNR on Monday, Labour leader Ed Miliband said that he would be more “cautious and considered” than Cameron is proposing to be. “I think it’s right to take a step back and look at this,” he said.
“We’ve got to look at ‘Do our intelligence services have the tools they need?’ but equally ‘Do we have the proper oversight to guarantee the liberties of free citizens?’ because, after all, one of the things we want to protect most of all here is our freedoms. We should defend our freedoms and also make sure the security services have what’s necessary to make sure that we counter that threat and defend that freedom.”
However, speaking just one day after the Charlie Hedbo attack, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker reiterated the importance of intercepting communications in order to avoid a terrorist attack.
According to Parker, changing technology is making it much harder for agencies to keep track of such communications: “Interception of communications, which includes listening to the calls made on a telephone, or opening and reading the contents of emails, form a critical part in the Security and Intelligence Agencies’ tool kit,” he said, in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in London on 8th January.
“Changes in the technology that people are using to communicate are making it harder for the agencies to maintain the capability to intercept the communications of terrorists. Wherever we lose visibility of what they are saying to each other, so our ability to understand and mitigate the threat that they pose is reduced,” Parker continued.
Responding to those who have voiced concerns about the legislation, Cameron said in his speech in the East Midlands: “Let me stress again, this cannot happen unless the home secretary personally signs a warrant. We have a better system for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country that I can think of.”
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said in a statement on Monday that any new legislation would have to be accompanied with appropriate regulating mechanisms.
“The capabilities of the intelligence agencies and law enforcement must keep pace with changing and emerging technology. So too must the oversight arrangements,” said Cooper.
“With proper warrants in place, the agencies need to be able to continue to be able to look at the content of communications of those feared to be plotting terrorist attacks. And there must continue to be safeguards to protect innocent people’s privacy.”