Security

British prime minister targets encrypted messaging after Paris attacks

Asking whether terrorists should be given safe spaces to talk, David Cameron pledges to tighten laws that could challenge WhatsApp and other messaging apps.

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UK Prime Minister David Cameron arrives in Paris to attend a rally in tribute to the 17 victims of attacks by terrorist gunmen. Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to tighten laws surrounding the encryption of electronic communication, potentially targeting services such as WhatsApp, Snapchat or Apple Messages. He asked Monday whether we should "allow safe spaces for (terrorists) to talk to each other."

Cameron was discussing security measures in the wake of events in Paris last week, where gunmen attacked the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. In the interest of disrupting communications between terrorists, Cameron pledged that if re-elected in this year's general election, he intends to ban encryption that cannot be read by security services.

"In our country," asked Cameron, speaking in Paris, "do we want to allow a means of communication between people which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, we cannot read?"

By banning encrypted communication, Cameron's proposed policies could collide with a growing trend among Silicon Valley companies to secure users' devices and services. Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others have pledged to strengthen the privacy of data users store with them by using encryption, a method that jumbles the data so that it's effectively unreadable to anyone other than the intended recipients. Companies like Apple and Google have even begun employing encryption technologies on their respective smartphones and tablets. These efforts have angered law enforcement agencies, particularly in the US.

As with most politicians' promises, Cameron's proposal is long on rhetoric and short on detail on how this would be enforced. His comments recall the Communications Data Bill that was vetoed in 2013 by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg due to concerns over civil liberties and the cost of implementation. Nicknamed the "snoopers' charter", the bill would have allowed for authorities to intercept emails, website visits and social media posts

Cameron and other politicians previously attacked chat apps in the aftermath of the London Riots of 2011. The Prime Minister told parliament that he wanted to "give the police the technology to trace people on Twitter or BBM, or close it down."

In today's speech, Cameron did at least acknowledge that care must be taken with surveillance. Comparing access to communications data (which means the details of who is messaging whom and when) and access to the message itself, he acknowledged that snooping on what was actually said is more contentious, emphasising that this "very intrusive power" must only be used with strict safeguards.

At the time of writing, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Apple had not responded to request for comment.

Ian Sherr contributed to this report.