UK prime minister David Cameron has drawn criticism for plans that could block encrypted messaging apps under new surveillance powers in reaction to the recent terror attacks in France.
He reportedly said services that allow people to communicate without providing access to their messages pose a serious challenge to law enforcement efforts to combat terrorism.
Cameron indicated that he will consider banning communication channels that cannot be read by the security services even if they have a warrant, but did not say how this might be enforced.
Cameron said: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?”
He acknowledged the “contentious” nature of this approach, but said that obtaining such information with permission from the apps would still require a warrant.
“Let me stress again, this cannot happen unless the home secretary personally signs a warrant. We have a better system for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of,” said Cameron.
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But critics have interpreted his comments as an indication that if the Conservatives win the next election, the UK could see a revival of the controversial draft Communication Data bill, or “snooper’s charter”, to give security services access to modern communications channels.
Many took to Twitter to protest against the proposed ban, with messages like: “@David_Cameron I'd rather spend a life behind bars than have to live in a country where encryption of my private communications is banned.”
After whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass internet surveillance by the NSA and its allies, internet firms have responded to public demand for encrypted services.
Privacy groups have strongly criticised attempts by the UK government to limit the use of privacy tools in the name of security.
The Open Rights Group has called on the prime minister to provide more details about his plans to give the security services the legal powers to break encrypted communications.
“Cameron’s plans appear dangerous, ill-thought out and scary,” said Jim Killock, executive director at the Open Rights Group.
“Having the power to undermine encryption will have consequences for everyone’s personal security. 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,” he said.
Cameron’s comments came as US president Barack Obama unveiled proposed legislation aimed at improving protection for US consumer and student data.
Cameron is expected to visit Obama on 15 January for talks, which are likely to include cyber security in the light of concerns about the rising number of cyber security breaches, including in the financial services sector.