Following a spate of terror attacks last year the internet was up in arms over a Draft Communications Data Bill (the infamous Snooper's Charter), which would see ISPs and mobile operators keep records of all communications for 12 months. PM David Cameron at the time also expressed a desire to ban WhatsApp, Snapchat, iMessage and the like, and now that WhatsApp has introduced end-to-end encryption it may soon be a subject back on Cameron's mind. So, should you be worried about losing your favourite messaging services, and what can you do to stop the WhatsApp ban? Also see: New WhatsApp charging hoax surfaces
Cameron's problem with instant-messaging services such as WhatsApp is that all use encryption that prevents security services from keeping tabs on us and our conversations. Also see: Security Advisor
Back in January 2015, Cameron said: "In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which, even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, that we cannot read? Now, up until now, governments of this country have said no, we must not have such a means of communication. That is why, in extremis, it has been possible to read someone's letter; that is why, in extremis, it has been possible to listen in to someone's telephone call; that is why the same applies with mobile communications.
"Let me stress again: this cannot happen unless the home secretary personally signs a warrant. We have a better system for safeguarding this very intrusive power than probably any other country I can think of.
"But the question remains: are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn't possible to do that? And my answer to that question is no we must not. The first duty of any government is to keep our people and our country safe."
London Mayor Boris Johnson also commented at the time: "I'm not interested in this civil liverties stuff. If they're a threat, I want their emails and calls listened to." Also see: Facebook Messenger isn't evil and it isn't about to spy on you
The potential WhatsApp ban was back in the news in July 2015 as home secretary Theresa May planned to bring a new draft of the Data Communications Bill (aka Snooper's Charter) in the autumn. With the Conservatives now having the majority, there were increasing fears that the bill would be passed and we could be looking at a WhatsApp ban as early as 2016.
WhatsApp ban: What does it mean for you?
Back in January 2015 we wrote that under Cameron's plans there are only two viable options - and neither sound good. Either these instant messaging services would be taken offline and people would be forced to use less-secure, unencrypted services, or backdoors would be opened within the apps that make it possible to decrypt messages, which may present new opportunities to hackers and allow the messages of ordinary people to be checked on by the government. In other words, in Cameron's attempts to improve national security from terrorists he will reduce personal privacy and security.
What the government is now pushing for is for internet services companies to document the activity of their customers and keep those records for 12 months. If services such as WhatsApp are willing to meet these terms, there is actually no need for them to close. It's not a WhatsApp ban so much as a restriction.
However, WhatsApp currently claims to not store your messages on its servers once they have been delivered, and now with end-to-end encryption the unique key attached to each message means only you (not WhatsApp or third parties) can read them.
On its blog it writes: "The idea is simple: when you send a message, the only person who can read it is the person or group chat that you send that message to. No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us. End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private - sort of like a face-to-face conversation."
WhatsApp ban: Should you be worried?
WhatsApp, iMessage and the like are not about to be banned. And if you've got nothing to hide, you have no reason to be worried. Yes, if the law goes ahead the goverment will be able to see what you send via these services if it has cause to do so, but that won't stop you sending it. And while you might want to die with embarrassment that someone other than the intended recipient has read your message, we bet your message isn't so special that it will stand out among the millions of similar conversations passing under government noses.
Cameron's original remarks were a knee-jerk reaction in response to the Charlie Hebdo Paris shootings early last year, and in reality banning instant messaging services is not a solution.
If terrorists want to collude in private then they will continue to do so, and spying on the normal person on the street won't solve the problem. There's an entire Dark Web out there, which proves just how much of the internet is beyond the government's remit. Then there are VPNs, the ability to send an encrypted attachment with an email and, oh, communication that is not conducted over the internet.
He might have the Conservative party on his side, but Cameron faces a great deal of opposition to his desire to decrypt IM.
Peter Sommer, professor of cybersecurity and digital evidence at de Montfort and the Open Universities, told The Guardian: “You can pass laws in Westminster until you’re blue in the face, but you can’t enforce them.”
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