EU, US, and UK Want to Decrypt All Communications

There’s been numerous developments recently over the battle for privacy. UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that all encrypted communications must either have a government backdoor or banned. The US President, Barack Obama, agreed saying that governments shouldn’t be impeded by encryption. Newly leaked documents suggest that EU officials are also on board.

The developments are seen by some as some of the latest pieces of evidence that there is a war on privacy by governments around the world. Citing the attacks in France, UK prime minister David Cameron said last week that he wants all encrypted communications to be compromised by the government. If government officials can’t decrypt an encrypted message, he wanted it banned altogether:

David Cameron, the British Prime minister, is one-upping his Western allies when it comes to anti-encryption propaganda. Ahead of national elections in May, Cameron said that if re-elected, he would seek to ban encrypted online messaging apps unless the UK government is given backdoors.

“Are we going to allow a means of communications which it simply isn’t possible to read?” Cameron said Monday while campaigning, in reference to apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and other encrypted services. “My answer to that question is: ‘No, we must not.'”

He said the Paris attacks, including the one last week on satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, underscored the need for greater access.

“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.

The call was condemned by founder of Lavabit, Ladar Levison, as being “Insane”. From The Guardian:

Levison, a leading proponent of encryption technology, joins a chorus of critics who have called Cameron’s proposals unworkable and dangerous.

“David Cameron is insane if he’s serious about giving the government the capability to snoop on everyone,” said Levison, who shut his email service rather than hand over user data to US authorities.

Levison said moves to allow government access to encrypted data would weaken safety online for everyone. “Think how much information has been stolen online already in the last year,” he said, referring to the hacks of Sony, Target and Home Depot. Creating “backdoors” for US or UK authorities would make the entire system more vulnerable, he insisted.

“Encryption underpins the entire network of trust on the internet, from downloading applications to banking and software updates,” said Levison. “If you have to hand over the keys, you’d be well advised not to use some services,” he said.

Such calls apparently are not fazing US president Barack Obama, however. Slashdot is pointing to a Wall Street Journal article which says that Obama is siding with Cameron:

Obama’s comments came after two days of meetings with Cameron, and with the prime minister at his side.

“If we find evidence of a terrorist plot… and despite having a phone number, despite having a social media address or email address, we can’t penetrate that, that’s a problem,” Obama said. He said he believes Silicon Valley companies also want to solve the problem. “They’re patriots.”

More recently, it has come to light that all of Europe is also on board with the idea. In a report in the EU Observer, EU authorities are currently demanding the keys to encrypted communications:

A top EU official wants internet and telecommunication companies to hand over encryption keys to police and spy agencies as part of a wider crackdown on terrorism.

The EU’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator Gilles de Kerchove, in a document leaked by London-based civil liberties group Statewatch, says the European Commission should come up with rules that require the firms to help national governments snoop on possible suspects.

The leaded document (PDF) states:

Since the Snowden revelations, internet and telecommunications companies have started to use often de-centralized encryption which increasingly makes lawful interception by the relevant national authorities technically difficult or even impossible. The Commission should be invited to explore rules obliging internet and telecommunications companies operating in the EU to provide under certain conditions as set out in the relevant national laws and in full compliance with fundamental rights access of the relevant national authorities to communications (i.e. share encryption keys).

All of this comes on the heals of a PEN survey that says writers are feeling censored because of surveillance. In an article in the New York Times (Via Slashdot), writers have said that they would avoid certain topics because of surveillance:

A survey of writers around the world by the PEN American Center has found that a significant majority said they were deeply concerned with government surveillance, with many reporting that they have avoided, or have considered avoiding, controversial topics in their work or in personal communications as a result.


The survey included only writers affiliated with PEN, the writers’ group emphasizing freedom of expression, and others the group was able to contact, and did not necessarily reflect the views of all writers. But the executive director of the PEN American Center, Suzanne Nossel, said that the findings, taken together with those of a 2013 PEN survey of writers in the United States, indicate that mass surveillance is significantly damaging free expression and the free flow of information around the world.

“Writers are the ones who experience encroachments on freedom of expression most acutely, or first,” Ms. Nossel said. “The idea that we are seeing some similar patterns in free countries to those we’ve traditionally associated with unfree countries is pretty distressing.”

Some might point out that this war on encryption could create an arms race between government and certain entities trying to create a secure network of communications. Such a war could very easily get ugly in a hurry. While there may not be much in the way of actual action by various governments that have been currently reported, it is very likely that developers would be paying close attention to these developments. Still, the damaging effects of surveillance are already very real to some. With governments aiming to crackdown on encrypted communication, it seems that human rights have vanished on the priority lists in favor of theoretical gains in security.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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