David Cameron appears to want to strengthen the laws that allow the security services to intercept communications so that no method or element of online communication is out of reach of the state, as long as they have a warrant personally signed by the home secretary. The security services complain that the growth of encryption of online data means there are already services available that are sold as guaranteeing privacy or are in some other way beyond the reach of the intelligence services.
It could mean that a new intercept law might outlaw services such as Snapchat, by which text, photos or video are shared for up to 10 seconds before they are deleted from the company’s servers. More than 700m photos and videos are shared each day using such services. It could also mean that companies that offer encrypted email services could be banned or required to hand over their encryption keys to the security services in specified circumstances such as terrorism or paedophile cases.
The prime minister also appears to want to future-proof any new measure. Traditionally the security services and the police have always had the authority to intercept and read any letter or listen in to any phone call as long as they have a warrant personally signed by the home secretary. Cameron’s comments suggest that he wants a blanket law that would cover not only existing forms of communication such as encrypted services or Snapchat-style services but also any that might develop into the future. This would amount to an extremely sweeping new power.
But the details are still unclear and Cameron’s aides are reluctant to spell out in any more detail what might be involved beyond saying that it is a matter for after the general election due in May.
Does this match with the new powers the security services in Britain want to tackle terrorism?
The demand for more powers for the security services made by Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks was not the first time a security chief has tried to put the subject on the table. Parker warned last week that the pace of technological change meant the “dark places [on the net] from where those who wish us harm can plot or plan are increasing”, and that agencies’ capability to tackle them were decreasing. Previously, the first act of Robert Hannigan when he took over as head of GCHQ in November was to launch a public attack on the US technology giants, accusing them of being ““the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals”.