The dark threat of the Snooper's Charter


Just hours after marching alongside world leaders in Paris in the name of liberté, David Cameron backed the revival of the Snooper’s Charter in terms little short of terrifying.  Free speech, it now seems, is only acceptable only when it can be accessed and reviewed by the state. Speaking to ITV, Cameron said:

…ever since we faced these terrorist threats it has always been possible, in extremis, with the signature of a warrant from     the home secretary, to intercept your communications, my communications, or anyone else, if there is a threat of terrorism. That is applied whether you are sending a letter, whether you are making a phone call, whether you are using a mobile phone, or whether you are using the internet. I think we cannot allow modern forms of communication to be exempt from the ability, in extremis, with a warrant signed by the home secretary, to be exempt from being listened to.

The Independent claims that restricting communication to interceptable channels would not just hit typically ‘nefarious’ spaces like the dark web, but any service that encrypts user’s data in a way which shields it from security services. This could include billion-dollar chat service WhatsApp, along with others like Snapchat and Apple's iMessage. Such companies would have to acquiesce to government requests for data and re-writing their software if required, or risk outlaw and the persecution of their users.

This would not be the first time that a government surveillance programme closed down commercial ventures. In 2013 Edward Snowden’s email provider of choice Lavabit chose to close its doors rather than be forced to install surveillance equipment on their network and hand over private encryption keys to the US Government. Silent Circle suspended their email service shortly after.

It’s difficult to predict the impact to the UK’s digital economy should Cameron press on in this vein. Compromising on privacy is something which WhatsApp in particular is unlikely to do. In November, it switched on end-to-end encryption for Android devices, with plans to extend this all 600m+ of its users. Growing up in communist Ukraine, for co-founder Jan Koum user’s privacy is not just a feature, but a defining characteristic of the product:

I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on….Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state -- the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.

Cameron’s newly- resurrected charter not only challenges a service used by hundreds of millions across the globe, but stands as a barrier to the very value of free expression western politicians profess to uphold. It is more than just a tool to listen in on ‘the bad guys’. And it doesn’t just affect the criminals and extremists, for it strikes right at the heart of our digital infrastructure and dictates exactly what channels of (monitored) communication British citizens are permitted to use to exercise our apparently hallowed right to free speech.

However, whilst the world’s typical, centralized communication industries are at risk from the government’s surveillance fetish, new forms of decentralized, distributed software and communication channels ­­­– which have no centralized store of user information or cryptographic keys to raid­– would be near impossible to bring to heel.

As ASI Fellow and COO of Eris Industries Preston Byrne explains:

David Cameron has said he wants to 'modernise' the law. I think he fails to understand just how out of date his worldview is. The only way you can shut down encrypted distributed networks today is to either arrest every person running a node and ensure that the data store containing a copy of that database is destroyed, or shut down the internet. Curtailing free association and private communications in the manner proposed is a battle the government is going to lose.

Banning end-to-end encryption will do nothing to prevent the technology from falling into the wrong hands - as any encryption technology worth a damn is open-source, and freely available to all - but will do a great deal to criminalise entirely reasonable measures taken by ordinary people to protect what private lives they have left.

To hang the case for a significantly reduced private sphere off the back of last week’s attacks is opportunistic, unpleasant, and distasteful. The tragedy in France has far more to do with issues of free speech, toleration and extremism than national security. The perpetrators of the French attacks were already known to intelligence officials, as was also the case in the 7/7 bombings and Lee Rigby’s murder. Hardly any acts of terrorism are by relative unknowns, who might have been identified were surveillance laws just that bit wider-ranging. Granting further powers and bigger budgets to security forces might show how ‘serious’ we are that ‘something must be done’, but arguably let agencies off the hook in terms of actually following up on already acquired intelligence.

No doubt Cameron has underestimated the scale, if not the significance, of what he proclaimed yesterday, and his attempt to create a surveillance-friendly communications ecosystem will be futile. But his words represent a threat in many ways much larger and darker than the terror he pledges to protect us from.