Government wants to ban WhatsApp and iMessage: Cameron says encryption could aid terrorism

Following the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, David Cameron has pledged to indroduce legislation that could lead to the banning of WhatsApp, Snapchat and iMessage.

If re-elected, Cameron has said he will resurrect the the Communications Data Bill, known more colloquially the “Snoopers’ Charter”, which would to give security services the right to listen in on private communications in a bid to thwart terrorist activities.

Previously the bill had been blocked by the Liberal Democrats, but without any opposition the new legislation could mean the end of WhatsApp, iMessage and Facetime being used legally in the UK.

David Cameron


Apple’s iMessage and Facetime software both use end-to-end encryption methods to maintain the security of a user’s communications. WhatsApp also operates in the same way, thanks to a recent update to it’s security systems, allowing it to have the same near-uncrackable levels that Apple’s communication apps benefit from.

Snapchat is less secure, but due to the self-destructing nature of its transmissions, it’s still pretty difficult to monitor what’s happening on the network.

It’s plausible that all these networks could be opened up with a backdoor key created for a government body. But, seeing as both Apple and WhatsApp have been rather vocal about their attitude to ensuring user privacy, and both don’t actually hold the keys to unencrypt user messages anyway, it seems more likely that these services would be shuttered off by Cameron’s Conservative party.

Speaking to ITV News (via The Independent) Cameron said “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.”

David Cameron wants to control the Internet

This isn’t the first time that Cameron has tried to push through extreme measures relating to online content as back in November he urged ISPs to block harmful content in a bid to protect UK citizens.

Back then it was unclear as to exactly what constituted as “harmful content”, and even ISPs seemed to be unsure on the matter. The Open Rights Group’s executive director, Jim Killock, also believed it lacked clarity and purpose.

Understandabily Killock also has strong views on Cameron’s recent announcement, stating “Cameron’s plans appear dangerous, ill-thought out and scary”.

Internet Encryption

(Flickr – Yuri Samoilov)

“Having the power to undermine encryption will have consequences for everyone’s personal security,” continued Killock. “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,” Killock said.

Indeed, the Government isn’t particularly known for managing to keep a tight grip on personal data in the modern age, so it’s a genuine concern that if a backdoor is opened to all our private communications, risks of a bigger and more damaging leack could be possible.

It seems that the same can be said of Cameron’s most recent re-election promise, as the basis for his announcement seems to be more one of opportunity rather than relevance – especially as the terror attacks in Paris were undertaken without the aid of any encrypted messaging services.

Analysis: why banning encrypted services won’t stop terrorism

This a is typical, knee-jerk, opportunistic, populist reaction from the government that will in the end serve to do nothing other than infringe our right to privacy.

There’s no evidence that banning encrypted messaging would have topped the attacks in Paris last week. The two perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, Said and Cherif Kouachi, were brothers – they didn’t need to communicate by WhatsApp or iMessenger or some other terrible and obscure medium of communication, they could just go and see each other. There would have been nothing suspicious about that.

Amedy Coulibaly, meanwhile, was a friend of the two brothers. We know they were in contact with each other, as were Coulibaly’s girlfriend and Cherif Kouachi’s wife, because they contacted each other by phone, not by some special super secret underground network.

And herein lies the rub – if we suck up everything, as the US tried to with Prism and the UK did with Tempora, we increase the noise-to-signal ratio, making it harder, even with big data analytics, to identify what is significant in all the billions of electronic messages sent each day around the world, and what is not.

To say that the terrorists win if we sacrifice our rights to privacy, or that we deserve neither freedom nor security if we’re prepared to sacrifice the latter for the former, is a cliche at this point, but that doesn’t make either statement any less true. We mustn’t let tragedies like this become an excuse for the rights that are enshrined in our democracy to be whipped out from underneath us.

Jane McCallion

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