In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, David Cameron has announced plans to introduce significant new surveillance powers in the UK, the Independent is reporting. The British Prime Minister also signalled he intends to crack down on encrypted communications the government can’t crack — suggesting a slew of popular communications platforms could be outlawed in Britain.
Speaking on Monday, the Prime Minister asked whether “we want to allow a means of communication between two people which even in extemis with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally that we cannot read? …My answer to that question is no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe.”
Cameron says the government needs to “modernise” the law to address the threat of terrorism, and that if his party wins the next General Election he will introduce new legislation to give law enforcement new powers. His remarks have been criticised by some, with Big Brother Watch director Emma Carr saying that it is “wholly unacceptable for this tragedy in Paris to be used as a means to call for a return of the snooper’s charter.”
It’s already illegal for Britons to refuse to surrender their passwords or encryption keys, and you can be jailed for doing so. But if someone’s refusing to talk (or they can’t be found), and police need to gain access to someone’s communication urgently, then this isn’t much help.
For this reason, some encryption software and communication platforms offer secret “backdoors” in their products, which can be used to give law enforcement access when required — but many others don’t. For example, PGP is a widely-used encryption tool that facilitates secure communication between people by exchanging “public” encryption “keys.” It’s frequently used by journalists, whistleblowers and dissidents, and there’s no way to decrypt a user’s communications unless you have their “private” key — even with a warrant.
Cameron’s remarks suggest that under his planned legislation, PGP could become illegal in Britain.
If the Conservatives win the General Election and bring in the planned legislation, Apple might also feel the consequences. The Cupertino company recently introduced encryption into their iOS devices that is impossible for them to undo, even if law enforcement has a warrant. They came under some criticism for the move, with one senior American police officer saying this lack of access will make the iPhone the “phone of choice for the paedophile.”
Under Cameron’s plans, Apple, for instance, would have to adapt its UK devices, or risk breaking the law. The Android version of messaging app WhatsApp would also fall foul of the proposed ban.
We’ve reached out to the Conservative Party for clarification, and will update this story when they get back to us.
Watch Cameron’s remarks here: