GCHQ Eavesdropping Proposal Soundly Rejected

A group of 47 technology companies, rights groups and security policy experts have released an open letter stating their objections to the idea of eavesdropping on encrypted messages on behalf of GCHQ.

“Ghost” User

The objections are being made to the (as yet) hypothetical idea floated by the UK National Cyber Security Centre's technical director Ian Levy and GCHQ's chief codebreaker Crispin Robinson for allowing a “ghost” user / third party i.e. a person at GCHQ, to see the text of an encrypted conversation (call, chat, or group chat) without notifying the participants.

According to Levy and Robinson, they would only seek exceptional access to data where there was a legitimate need, where there that kind of access was the least intrusive way of proceeding, and where there was also appropriate legal authorisation.

Challenge

The Challenge for government security agencies in recent times has been society’s move away from conventional telecommunications channels which could lawfully and relatively easily be ‘tapped’, to digital and encrypted communications channels e.g. WhatsApp, which are essentially invisible to government eyes. For example, back in September last year, this led to the 'Five Eyes' governments threatening legislative or other measures to be allowed access to end-to-end encrypted apps such as WhatsApp. In the UK back in 2017, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd had also been pushing for ‘back doors’ to be built into encrypted services and had attracted criticism from tech companies that as well as compromising privacy, this would open secure encrypted services to the threat of hacks.

Investigatory Powers Act

The Investigatory Powers Act which became law in November 2016 in the UK included the option of ‘hacking’ warrants by the government, but the full force of the powers of the law was curtailed somewhat by legal challenges. For example, back in December 2018, Human rights group Liberty won the right for a judicial review into part 4 of the Investigatory Powers Act. This is the part that was supposed to give many government agencies powers to collect electronic communications and records of internet use, in bulk, without reason for suspicion.

The Open Letter

The open letter to GCHQ in Cheltenham and Adrian Fulford, the UK’s investigatory powers commissioner was signed by tech companies including Google, Apple, WhatsApp and Microsoft, 23 civil society organisations, including Big Brother Watch, Human Rights Watch, and 17 security and policy experts. The letter called for the abandonment of the “ghost” proposal on the grounds that it could threaten cyber security and fundamental human rights, including privacy and free expression. The coalition of signatories also urged GCHQ to avoid alternate approaches that would also threaten digital security and human rights, and said that most Web users “rely on their confidence in reputable providers to perform authentication functions and verify that the participants in a conversation are the people they think they are and only those people”. As such, the letter pointed out that the trust relationship and the authentication process would be undermined by the knowledge that a government “ghost” could be allowed to sit-in and scrutinise what may be perfectly innocent conversations.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

With digital communications in the hands of private companies, and often encrypted, governments realise that (legal) surveillance has been made increasingly difficult for them. This has resulted in legislation (The Investigatory Powers Act) with built-in elements to force tech companies to co-operate in allowing government access to private conversations and user data. This has, however, been met with frustration in the form of legal challenges, and other attempts by the UK government to stop end-to-end encryption have, so far, also been met with resistance, criticism, and counter-arguments by tech companies and rights groups. This latest “ghost” proposal represents the government’s next step in an ongoing dialogue around the same issue. The tech companies would clearly like to avoid more legislation and other measures (which look increasingly likely) that would undermine the trust between them and their customers, which is why the signatories have stated that they would welcome a continuing dialogue on the issues. The government is clearly going to persist in its efforts to gain some kind of surveillance access to tech company communications services, albeit for national security (counter-terrorism) reasons for the most part, but is also keen to be seen to do so in a way that is not overtly like ‘big brother’, and in a way that allows them to navigate successfully through the existing rights legislation.

Posted by Andrew Sewell,

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