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In Wake of Paris Attacks, David Cameron Calls For New Powers to Break Encrypted Communications

In comments that have been interpreted as a call for heightened surveillance powers, Cameron said that "we must not" allow a means of communication that enables individuals to privately speak to each other online.
Photo via Reuters

In the aftermath of last week's Paris terrorist attacks that shocked the world and have rattled much of Western Europe, British Prime Minister David Cameron said this week that no form of encrypted communication should be beyond the reach of the UK government.

In comments that have been interpreted as a call for heightened surveillance powers, Cameron said that "we must not" allow a means of communication that enables individuals to privately speak to each other online.


He used the attacks on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo as a springboard to call for "robust powers" for intelligence and security agencies, adding that such powers were "absolutely right for a modern liberal democracy."

The proposal for the ability to access encrypted communications goes further than the prime minister has ever before, and would be a significant escalation to the communications data bill — or "snooper's charter" — which was blocked by the UK's Liberal Democrat party in 2014 over concerns around the storage of intercepted communications.

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Such changes could affect a wide range of popular services. WhatsApp and iMessage are among popular phone applications that encrypt communications, and online shopping, banking, and personal data could potentially all be affected because they implement end-to-end encryption.

Cameron outlined the proposals after meeting Britain's intelligence agencies following last week's Paris attacks, in which terrorists left 17 dead.

Speaking in Nottingham on Monday, Cameron promised that terrorists would have "no no-go areas" online where their communications would evade detection.

"In extremis, it has been possible to read someone's letter, to listen to someone's call, to mobile communications … The question remains: are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that?" he said. "My answer to that question is: no, we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our country and our people safe."


Cameron added that the government had "a better process for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of."

His plans were rejected by his coalition partner, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, however.

"The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens," Clegg said in a speech to the Journalists' Charity at the Irish embassy on Monday night.

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Cameron has made it clear in interviews that he plans to resurrect the communications data bill, but his comments suggest that there may be plans underway to introduce new legislation for communications content interception.

The UK's counter-terrorism and security bill, which will make it easier to identify devices that are online by their IP addresses, is about to be debated in the House of Lords. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which outlines provisions for the interception of communications, is currently under review by Barrister David Anderson, QC. And the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act — emergency legislation pushed through in the summer — will expire at the end of 2016.

Senior European Union officials will meet in Brussels on Friday to prepare new security and counter-terrorism policies for next month's EU summit. The Paris attack has reportedly accelerated efforts to produce a united counter-terrorism strategy.

Mike Rispoli, a spokesman for Privacy International, an NGO advocating global privacy rights, told VICE News that the government's attempt to "dust off" the communications data bill was "cynical opportunism."

"The attacks in Paris present an opportune moment for Cameron," he said. "But the UK Government has in fact been encountering public and parliamentary resistance to introducing this kind of policy for years."

Eradicating encryption technologies on the internet "is simply not within Britain's capabilities," he added, because the UK would have to ban "the legions of online services and functions that rely on encryption, from online banking to hotel bookings."

Follow Ben Bryant on Twitter: @benbryant