My social media timeline has been inundated in the last week with headlines warning that Whatsapp is about to be banned in the UK by the government. The UK’s mainstream media knows a good scandal when it sees one, and therefore it has picked up the story issuing hysterical headlines about how encrypted communication apps will be outlawed in the UK.
There is one thing in common with all of these reports. Not one offers any evidence that the government is about to ban encrypted communication tools. The scare story seems to be operating under its own momentum. Needless to say, there is no such ban forthcoming, at least for now.
Here are the facts.
Back in 2012, Home Secretary Theresa May proposed a new communications data bill that would compel technology companies to track, record and store mobile phone and web usage from their users. This was known at the time as the “Snooper’s Charter”, and it was defeated in early stages when the Liberal Democrats opposed it within the coalition government.
After the Tories won the last election with an overall majority, they saw the opportunity to introduce measures that they could not pass during the previous Parliament. One of these is the re-introduction of the Snooper’s Charter, which was mentioned in the Queen’s speech and announced by Theresa May. A draft bill is expected in Autumn 2015.
Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Firstly, some aspects of the Snooper’s Charter are indeed troubling, and the type of surveillance that it could bring about would seriously erode our civil liberties. Secondly, David Cameron has also been making some truly worrying statements about privacy. In one statement he said:
“In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which we cannot read? My answer to that question is: ‘No, we must not’.”
And in another much publicised statement that reads like the lines from a comic book villain, he said:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This Government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach.”
All of this means that we must stay vigilant, and that any proposal about the Snooper’s Charter must received the greatest scrutiny, which is why I am one of the signatories of an open letter asking the government for open debate and transparency in the enactment of any new measure that might impose restrictions to privacy and civil liberties. This process is ongoing.
However, I have been baffled by the headlines assuring us that the end of Whatsapp is near. The problem is that as of today, there is no actual proposal from the government that says that encrypted tools and apps will be outlawed, banned, restricted, regulated, or subjected to licensing. We have at the moment some official documents that are exploring the creation of the Snooper’s Charter, particularly the Anderson Report and a special report for the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. We also have an independent review just published today from the Royal United Services Institute. It is likely that the government will use all of these three as the main basis for consultation for the new legislation.
For the avoidance of doubt, there is certainly room for concern with the Snooper’s Charter. The Anderson Report is quite concerned about the use of encryption by criminals and terrorists, and it says that new legislation must make sure that “those who adopt advanced encryption technologies remain within the reach of the law”, but it falls short of calling for a ban of encrypted apps. This means that we must stay vigilant and keep an eye on the proposed legislation. What we must not do is to fill newspapers with false or exaggerated scare stories, or they will come back and bite us.
Stories about boys crying ‘wolf’ come to mind.