Apple, WhatsApp criticize GCHQ surveillance proposal

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GCHQ wants to do away with privacy in messaging apps

Last November, British intelligence agency Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) published a proposal arguing it should be allowed to monitor encrypted messages. On Wednesday, Silicon Valley offered a rebuke of the security service’s plan. In an open letter, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and WhatsApp criticized GCHQ’s theoretical silent surveillance protocol for being a major policy violation and inherently undemocratic.

GCHQ’s Encrypted Messaging Proposal

GCHQ officials Ian Levy and Crispin Robinson published a proposal outlining a new approach regarding national security and end-to-end encryption messaging. The pair argued the public should have access to private texting tools, but law enforcement agencies should have access to protected conversations. Levy and Robinson suggested that police and intelligence services be covertly added to targeted encrypted group chats.

The GCHQ officers argued that their proposal would benefit law enforcement agencies, users, and service providers. Since it doesn’t involve the use of a digital backdoor, the agency’s “ghost protocol” wouldn’t weaken encrypted messaging standards. Therefore, users of services like WhatsApp and Telegram wouldn’t have to worry about third-party interception of their private texts. Additionally, organizations like GCHQ could use information obtained from secure group chats to catch criminals and terrorists.

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The duo claimed their plan would be a high-tech version of the traditional law enforcement practice of wiretapping. Moreover, the intelligence agents also wrote the “ghost protocol” would be a tool for exceptional circumstances only.

Big Tech’s Response

Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp don’t agree with GCHQ’s assertion that its proposal would preserve user privacy and service integrity. In their open letter, the Big Tech firms noted the agency’s plan is flawed in several significant ways.

The letter states accommodating the proposed policy would require mobile carriers and service providers to overhaul their current encryption methodologies. Furthermore, it would force service providers to mislead consumers into thinking their messaging exchanges are private. As a result, the corporations argue that consumers would no longer have faith in the integrity of their products.

Silicon Valley’s most powerful corporations also noted GCHQ’s scheme undermines fundamental human rights to free expression and privacy. Levy and Robinson told CNBC they appreciated the firms’ response and reiterated the theoretical nature of their proposal.

Other Government Encryption Breaking Proposals

Britain isn’t the only nation to argue that governments need access to encrypted messaging. Recently, a German government official outlined a new policy even more invasive than the one proposed by the GCHQ.

On May 29, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer argued WhatsApp and Telegram should provide authorities with plaintext transcriptions of encrypted messages. As opposed to GCHQ’s plan, Seehofer’s proposal would effectively undercut the security of private messaging services in the European republic. Furthermore, the politician suggested banning any company found not complying with the government’s surveillance program. It’s worth noting that BuzzFeed recently reported WhatsApp had become a propaganda tool for neo-Nazi groups operating in Germany.

Likewise, then-French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve proposed the European Commission allow security agencies to access encrypted messages in 2016. Cazeneuve’s call for action came after French intelligence services discovered ISIS used WhatsApp and Telegram to orchestrate the November 2015 Paris terror attacks.

In December 2018, the Indian government proposed a series of new tech regulations requiring encrypted messaging services to screen private messages for “unlawful” content. In response, WhatsApp formally refused New Delhi’s request in January.

Forbes reported in February that the Australian Parliament passed a bill granting the nation’s authorities access to encrypted messages. The Assistance and Access Bill also requires service providers to aid law enforcement and intelligence agencies in decoding encrypted communications.

In America, federal authorities have also called for increased law enforcement access to protected messaging. In 2018, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray said smartphone data encryption represented a “major public safety issue.” Similarly, former Deputy Attorney General Red Rosenstein called for “responsible” mobile device encryption last November.

Currently, more than 1.7 billion people use WhatsApp and Telegram monthly.