If services like WhatsApp and Facebook don’t allow government spying, British Prime Minister David Cameron has threatened to ban the apps outright.
And so begins Europe’s surveillance propaganda.
It hasn’t even been a week since France found itself the center of a string of deadly terror attacks, yet European politicians have already started using the incidents as fodder in their pro-spying campaigns.
The latest is British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is currently campaigning on behalf of Britain’s conservative party ahead of the country’s general election. At a campaign stop on Monday, Cameron pointed the finger at encrypted messaging as a co-conspirator in last week’s terror attack and others in the past, suggesting that applications like WhatsApp and Apple’s Messages were putting people in danger because they don’t allow intelligence agents to snoop on the communications of suggested terrorists.
“Are we going to allow a means of communications [that] simply isn’t possible [for agents] to read?” Cameron asked at the event. “My answer to that question is, no, we must not.”
Cameron said the attack in Paris underscores the need for Britain’s surveillance authorities to spy on electronic communications. Such action has been hotly debated in Britain and elsewhere for much of the past two years since former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked a trove of sensitive documents detailing clandestine spy programs by the U.S. government, some of which agents colluded on with British spy agencies.
The documents and later reporting revealed that in some cases, American and British intelligence officers were collecting data on the communications of people who were not accused of any terrorism-related offense or any crime at all. The documents also showed that American technology companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook had been unwitting partners in both government’s campaigns to extract data from their services.
In response, several American tech companies announced their intention to move toward greater encryption measures for their devices and services. Last year, Apple made headlines after it said the latest release of its mobile operating system iOS would automatically encrypt data on its iPhone and iPad devices, including text messages sent back and forth using its proprietary “Messages” application. Google and Facebook have announced similar measures.
Those announcements were criticized by American authorities as providing a potential safe-haven for hardened criminals, including suspected child pornographers, kidnappers and terrorists.
“We would hope that technology companies would be willing to work with us to ensure that law enforcement retains the ability, with court-authorization, to lawfully obtain information in the course of an investigation, such as catching kidnappers and sexual predators,” outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at a conference on cybercrime last October. “It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”
Previously, Apple was able to provide law enforcement with a so-called “back door” into its devices and services. The company’s latest move toward encryption means Apple is, itself, shut out of its customers’ hardware and software, rendering it unable to comply with law enforcement demands for data.
“People have a right to privacy,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook told journalist Charlie Rose last September. “If the government laid a subpoena to get [text messages], we can’t provide it. It’s encrypted and we dont have a key … the door is closed.”
Cameron argues that the deliberate move not to allow governments to spy on communications emboldens terrorists so the solution, naturally, is to ban services that do.
“The attacks in Paris demonstrated the scale of the threat that we face and the need to have robust powers through our intelligence and security agencies in order to keep our people safe,” Cameron said.
To do this, Cameron hinted that he would revive something called the Draft Communications Data Bill (known as the “Snoopers’ Charter” by the British press). The bill, introduced in 2012, would have required Internet and cellphone companies to log and retain data related to their customers’ use of calls, text messages, e-mails and other online activity.
The bill was blocked by opposition parties from being introduced in the current Parliamentary session, but it could be revived if Cameron’s party scores a big win in the forthcoming general election. In doing so, Cameron has strongly suggested he would include restrictions on encrypted messaging apps as well. Such a move has drawn criticism from opponents who have suggested a narrower approach at increased surveillance powers.
“We have 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?” said Ed Miliband, the opposition leader who earlier rejected calls for a revival of the Snoopers’ Charter. “After all, one of the things we want to protect most of all here is our freedoms. So we should defend our freedoms, also making sure that the security services have what is necessary to counter that threat and defend that freedom.”