After the recent tragedy in France that left 12 dead, the Charlie Hebdo incident has been used as a catalyst to revive topics surrounding online communications.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for tougher laws in the wake of the attacks to allow the government and the security services to read online communications more easily in an effort to avoid similar tragedies in France happening in the UK and elsewhere in the world.
While the intention of the Prime Minister is honourable and there will be few citizens who disagree that being able to read the communications of terrorists can only be a good thing, the manner in which this is suggested is what has become the most troublesome aspect with great debate required.
David Cameron has been quoted as saying that there should be no “means of communication” that “we cannot read”. In essence this would suggest that the UK government wishes to be able to decrypt every form of communications or on a more sinister level, ban all forms of encryption when possible.
In 2014 when the European Union removed laws that required ISPs to retain metadata, the UK rushed through powers to reintroduce a similar UK wide law to replace and retain the powers that the EU power had enabled. The law introduced does not allow the retention of content of messages and phone calls but the metadata which contains such information as timestamps, call lengths and who called who. Part of the legislation included that the powers would expire by the end of 2016.
Due to the expiration date it would make sense that the UK government will be looking to introduce new laws to continue the existing powers and also increase the ability for the security services to delve in to online communications. With incidents such as the Charlie Hebdo massacre at the forefront of the public’s concious, it appears that seizing on opportunities such as this to increase the support for online snooping would be a beneficial tactic to the UK government.
When the UK rushed through emergency law in 2014, it was a watered down version of the Draft Communication Bill, 2012. Known as the “snoopers’ charter” the bill would of required ISPs and other communications businesses to store information for 12 months. Not just metadata but actual details of messages that would include systems such as social media, webmail, voip and gaming chatter. Although the information would of required a warrant (subpoena) to be disclosed, the mass storing of such data would be a huge invasion of privacy.
What David Cameron is proposing is unclear, but it is likely to be similar to the “snoopers’ charter” and only should he be re-elected in the forthcoming elections would we discover what this may entail.
The implementation of such an act would also cause issues. Will the UK government be banning applications that encrypt communications data automatically? Such as Whatsapp or Cyphr from VPN provider VyprVPN parent company, Golden Frog or would a backdoor be required that allows the security services to enter and leave as they please.
All options are rather flawed. As we have seen since the Edward Snowden leaks, companies such as Apple have removed the ability to decrypt their customers communications meaning it is impossible for them to hand over sensitive data. Banning encryption would also be impossible due to the requirement to use encrypted sessions for online shopping, banking and other secure sites.
A backdoor system would be risky and open up the ability for hackers and other nefarious types to exploit the system. The weakest link in the chain is always the human element of anything and should a backdoor be required for the government to access every citizens communications data then you can guarantee someone else will find a way to access this secret door too. This would put citizens at more risk for the sake of “security”.
No matter what solution would be proposed, each invades the privacy of law abiding citizens and while the government has always had the ability to intercept regular snail mail and read it, it has never been the case that every item is scanned and retained for future use which would be the case for online communications.
With terrorist attacks increasing and making headlines worldwide over the past 15 years it is critical that the security of citizens and society be protected, but again, the debate will rage on how this can be best achieved without violating basic civil liberties of freedom and privacy for law abiding citizens.
Interesting times ahead for the UK and other countries who will no doubt monitor the situation closely, it appears that VPN use will increase allowing users to access the internet in an encrypted manner without fear that their every movement is being logged.
Users interested in making use of a VPN service may wish to consider our VPN Comparison Guide.
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