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Why David Cameron's plan to ban Whatsapp is ludicrous

The PM wants to block all encrypted communications, including apps like Snapchat and Whatsapp. One leading hacker tells us why it'll never work

In the wake of the horrific Charlie Hebdo shooting, David Cameron used the opportunity to promise a new snoopers' charter should he win the next general election. The Prime Minister wondered aloud at a press conference: "In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read?” For a lot of us, the answer is probably "uh, yeah?"

It's clear that Cameron hates encryption, but apps like Whatsapp, Snapchat and iMessage all encrypt their data as a matter of course. Which means that if D-Cam makes good on his promise to stop any method of communication that can't be read by the security services, you might well have to resort to – ugh – sending your nude selfies via text message. How early 2000s. 

We spoke to Morgan Marquis-Boire, a hacker, security researcher and contributing writer at The Interceptfor more insight into Cameron's proposals. A former member of the security team at Google, Marquis-Boire's work focusses on surveillance and the digital targeting of activists. 

 

David Cameron recently said that he'll "never give up on the values of freedom of speech". Doesn't his intention to increase surveillance kind of contradict that?

Morgan Marquis-Boire: The right to privacy is a cornerstone of free speech. If you can't speak without worrying that you will be monitored by your government or your employer, then it will necessarily limit what you say. The most important censorship happens between your brain and the keyboard. Recent studies have shown that if you are aware of being constantly watched, you will invariably self-censor. Pervasive surveillance leading to pervasive self-censorship will limit the free development and exchange of ideas. Given the attack in Paris was an attack on free expression, it's unfortunate that the response is to further attack freedom of speech.

Is surveillance a weapon? And if so, who is the British government using it against?

Morgan Marquis-Boire: There’s a danger in conflating all types of surveillance. Law enforcement surveillance is different in character to the surveillance conducted by the intelligence community. Or at least, it should be. 

Traditionally, law enforcement would surveil people suspected of committing crimes. When it was determined whether or not this was the case, the surveillance would stop. Either the person would be arrested or they would no longer be a subject of suspicion. The intelligence community, on the other hand, is tasked with keeping track of the movements of weapons, armed forces, the communications of foreign powers and so forth. This is an ongoing mission.

There's a greater standard of transparency that law enforcement needs to be beholden to, to the public. We don't actually expect spies to be transparent with us but the police aren't spies. It’s important for the public to decide the character of surveillance that’s appropriate in modern society. While there are undoubtedly legitimate uses for surveillance, historical abuses of secret surveillance are manifold. When such activity is opaque and technological capabilities remain secret, citizens lack the knowledge to fully comprehend the scope and nature of surveillance and hence lack ability to challenge it.

What would you say to somebody who says "if you have nothing to hide, then what's the problem?"

Morgan Marquis-Boire: Privacy isn’t about having something to hide, but rather, about intimacy. There are many moments in our lives that we necessarily wish to share selectively. Moments of love, moments of family, moments of grief. These are not distinguished by shame, furtiveness or guilt, but rather by the fact that they are special because of who we chose to experience them with. On the flipside, we’ve seen an increase in surveillance software used in intimate partner violence. For many, surveillance isn’t about espionage, terrorism, or government spying. For many, surveillance begins at home.

How possible do you think it would be for Cameron to push through a law banning encrypted communications and apps like Whatsapp?

Morgan Marquis-Boire: At this stage, it’s uncertain this would work. Encryption is used to protect many important communications every day in online banking, e-commerce, and business correspondence, as well as person-to-person messaging. 

There’s no difference between the encryption that is used to enable the positive parts of the Internet as we understand it and the encryption that might be used by ‘bad guys’. Banning encryption would make the UK would more vulnerable to spying by both other governments and cyber criminals.

Not only is what David Cameron proposing difficult and hazardous, it is also unnecessary. Currently, there are both legal and technical provisions which can facilitate access to encrypted data. Not only can the police force people to decrypt communications, but they frequently hack into computers and mobile devices to gain access to communications after they have been decrypted by the recipient.

Should I have encrypted my emails to you?

Morgan Marquis-Boire: Communications security is about more than encrypting or not encrypting your mail, but that would be a good start.

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