UK to seek Obama's help in accessing user data from US firms

Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to ask for help getting US firms to make user data accessible to UK intelligence agencies under a legal framework that has yet to be worked out.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

President Obama will host UK Prime Minister David Cameron in the Oval Office on Friday. CBS

To share or not to share?

That's one of the issues UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama will address when they meet Friday, according to a report.

Cameron and Obama will discuss the UK's desire to access user data from US-based tech companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to aid in its law enforcement strategy, The Guardian reported, citing people who claim to have knowledge of the anticipated discussions.

According to those sources, Cameron will demand that US companies store data on users and make it accessible to UK intelligence agencies to keep the country's citizens "safe." That accessibility would involve a new legal framework that has yet to be worked out. One government source told the Guardian that while sites like Facebook and Twitter do cooperate to some degree, the UK would like to see that cooperation increased.

Neither Facebook nor Twitter responded to a request for comment.

The prime minister's demand could ignite even more controversy over data accessibility. Since former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents to the press, the world has been overwhelmed with information on the extent to which the US government goes to access user data.

Nearly every major tech company has urged the US government to let tech firms make data requests from law enforcement agencies public so more transparency can exist between the firms and their customers. So far, the overtures have been largely rebuffed, with the government letting companies publish only ranges of the numbers of national security requests they receive.

In response to the widespread alarm over data collection, some companies have taken matters into their own hands. Both Google and Apple have built encryption into their latest mobile operating systems so data handled by the OSes can't be accessed by the US government. The US has taken issue with the encryption on cell phones. FBI Director James Comey said in Washington in October that such encryption could cause "justice" to be "denied" by preventing law enforcement from gathering evidence.

"We aren't seeking a backdoor approach," Comey said. "We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law," including court orders, he said.

Comey, along with other government officials, argues that criminals will seek out online services that ensure them safe haven, by way of things like uncrackable encryption, and that the US should be allowed at any time to legally access data. Google, however, has made clear that it doesn't see it the same way, saying in October that "people previously used safes and combination locks to keep their information secure. Now they use encryption."

That the UK prime minister wants access to US companies' data is perhaps no surprise, given the comments he made earlier this week about encryption. Speaking in Paris just days after gunmen attacked the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people, Cameron said that messaging services -- such as Facebook's WhatsApp, Snapchat and Apple Messages -- use encryption that allows "safe spaces for [terrorists] to talk to each other."

Cameron, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, said that if he wins in this year's general election, he will ban encryption that cannot be accessed by standard, legal security services. According to The Guardian, that will require buy-in from US companies, which is why Cameron will ask President Obama to apply pressure.

Given the response the tech community has had toward the US government, it's debatable whether it will be any more receptive to a foreign country placing demands on how data is stored. However, according to The Guardian, Cameron will argue that the US and UK are close allies and that sharing user data for the prosecution of criminals shouldn't be a concern.