Former GCHQ chief: End-to-end encryption is an “overwhelmingly good thing”

State surveillance continues to be a topic of discussion following the recent spate of terrorist attacks on UK soil. Encryption, and whether governments should have powers to work around it or negate it entirely, is very much at the heart of this debate.

Former GCHQ chief: End-to-end encryption is an “overwhelmingly good thing”

In the wake of the Westminster Bridge attack, home secretary Amber Rudd called for measures to ensure services like WhatsApp “don’t provide a secret place for terrorists to communicate”. Soon after, an EU draft report rallied around encryption, claiming there should be safeguards to protect users against decryption or reverse engineering of security measures.

Now the former chief of GCQH has come forward to back end-to-end encryption, calling it an “overwhelmingly good thing”.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, former head of GCHQ Robert Hannigan spoke about the importance of end-to-end encryption, as well as the issues with attempting to legislate against it.

“Everyone would like a simple answer on encryption and unfortunately it is very difficult,” he said. “Encryption is an overwhelmingly good thing – it keeps us all safe and secure. Throughout the Cold War, until about 15 years ago, it was something which only governments could do at scale.

“What’s happened is that you can now get the same grade of encryption on a number of apps on your smartphone. It’s available to everybody. That is a good thing.”

Speaking about the problems governments face in stopping “the abuse of that encryption by a tiny minority of people,” Hannigan said that attempts to undermine security could pose a threat to all users.

“You can’t uninvent end-to-end encryption […] you can’t just do away with it. The best you can do is work with the companies that operate it to find a way around it.

“Building in backdoors is a threat to everybody. It’s not a good idea to weaken security for everybody to tackle a minority.”

Hannigan recognised that UK government has a complex problem on its hands, but insisted that legislative measures to force the hands of US-based companies like Facebook and Apple are unlikely to work. Instead, he encouraged cross-company collaboration, such as with the recently created Global Internet Forum.

“I can’t see, particularly as many of these companies are US-based, that legislation is the answer on this.

“The ideal thing would be to get the companies to do it themselves together, and to do it – as they’re promising to do – with think tanks and academics and civil society. If that doesn’t work then we’ll need to look at legislation again, but it’s a blunt instrument.”

Said blunt instrument has been blunted further by the 2017 election – where the Conservative party failed to gain the majority to enact its bold plans for policing the internet.

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