The head of GCHQ is striking a conciliatory tone, calling for a “new relationship” between tech companies and the UK government, The Telegraph reports, as debate rages over privacy, security, and encryption.
Speaking at MIT, Robert Hannigan said “we should be bridging the divide, sharing ideas and building a constructive dialogue in a less highly-charged atmosphere.” He calls for a “a new forum to facilitate this,” and said that the Prime Minister will be providing more details on how he intends to achieve this in the “coming months.”
The speech is only Hannigan’s second public speech since becoming director of GCHQ in November 2014. And it contains less inflammatory rhetoric than his first.
Shortly after he took the job, he wrote a column for The Financial Times in which he said that US tech companies’ platforms have “become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals.”
Hannigan’s new speech comes at a time of unprecedented public debate over security in the digital age. In the US, the FBI is using the courts to try and force Apple help it break into an encrypted iPhone that was owned by a terrorist, with Apple countering that building the software necessary would be too dangerous.
And in the UK, the Investigatory Powers Bill is making its way through Parliament. It’s the Conservative government’s flagship new proposed spying law, that will for the first time lay a clear legal framework for spooks’ activities in the digital age.
But it’s also proving highly divisive: An earlier draft was heavily criticised by three Parliamentary committees, with one calling the bill at times “inconsistent and largely incomprehensible.”
One key concern is encryption. Privacy advocates are worried that provisions in the Investigatory Powers Bill may require to weaken their encryption or otherwise introduce backdoors for law enforcement access. Hannigan denied this is the case. “I am not in favour of banning encryption. Nor am I asking for mandatory backdoors,” he said. “I am puzzled by the caricatures in the current debate, where almost every attempt to tackle the misuse of encryption by criminals and terrorists is seen as a ‘backdoor.’ It is an over-used metaphor, or at least mis-applied in many cases, and I think it illustrates the confusion of the ethical debate in what is a highly-charged and technically complex area.”
Not everyone is convinced, however. UEA law lecturer Paul Bernal said on Twitter on Tuesday morning that his reading of the bill is that it could “probably” allow the UK government to order the creation of secret backdoors, although the bill’s language is “(deliberately?) unclear.”
Here are more of Hannigan’s comments, via The Telegraph:
We recognise that we need a new relationship between the tech sector, academia, civil society and Government agencies.”
I’ve no doubt that we will need a new forum to facilitate this, bringing together the tech industry, Government agencies, academia and civil society. A space where we can build confidence, have a frank dialogue and work out how we can best tackle the problems we all recognise within the law.
For our part we’re fully committed to a collaborative approach and want to support this actively. The Prime Minister will be setting out further details in the coming months on how the UK Government plans to facilitate this dialogue.