internet technology

Spy agency encryption cracking foolish, says web inventor

Warwick Ashford

The father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee (pictured), has called for debate about “dysfunctional and unaccountable” supervision of US and UK intelligence agencies.

The decision by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s GCHQ to crack the encryption that internet users rely on for privacy was “appalling and foolish”, he told the Guardian.

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Berners-Lee said undermining of the protection afforded by encryption would benefit organised criminal hacker gangs and hostile states.

The UK scientist said the move weakened online security, contradicted US and UK efforts to fight cyber crime and cyber warfare, and was a betrayal of the technology industry.

He called for a "full and frank public debate" on internet surveillance, saying that the system of checks and balances to oversee the agencies has failed.

The call comes just ahead of a scheduled hearing by parliament's intelligence and security committee (ISC) that will raise questions about conduct with the heads of all the UK's spy agencies on 7 November.

The ISC is expected to question GCHQ director Iain Lobban, MI5 director general Andrew Parker, and MI6 chief Sir John Sawers about mass surveillance programmes, terror threats and cyber security.

However, details of intelligence techniques and ongoing operations will be off-limits, according to the BBC.

While senior UK politicians, including the prime minister David Cameron, have called the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden irresponsible, Berners-Lee believes the leaks are in the public’s interest.

He said whistleblowers play an important role in society, and while powerful agencies are needed to combat criminal activity online, any powerful agency needs checks and balances.

“Based on recent revelations, it seems the current system of checks and balances has failed," he said.

As the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that seeks to promote global standards for the web, Berners-Lee is a leading authority on the power and the vulnerabilities of the internet.

He said although he had anticipated many of the surveillance activities exposed by Snowden, he had not been prepared for the scale of the NSA and GCHQ operations.


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