In the wake of several high profile phone hacking scandals, personal security has become big news and even bigger business. The public is now more concerned than ever with privacy, both online and on their mobiles. That created a void that software developers were eager to fill, and a number of firms were quick to launch security conscious smartphone apps designed to protect their user’s privacy. New messaging apps were created that allowed users to encrypt, or even delete, ongoing texts and conversations. These encrypted messaging apps have been a hit with the public, but they now face a serious challenge in the form of a government ban. British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that, if reelected, he would actively pursue a UK ban on many encrypted messaging apps.
Citing national security, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium, Cameron says he will push for a ban on any messaging app that renders the user’s data inaccessible to intelligence agencies and government officials. The Prime Minister contends that messaging apps like Snapchat, Ansa and Strings have the potential to become safe havens for terrorists, allowing them to communicate freely without fear of detection. Cameron’s position echoes that of many European politicians who have been pushing internet giants like Google and Facebook to provide more actionable data concerning people’s online activities. The messaging apps ban would be only a small part of a larger reform measure intended to force telecom operators and internet providers to collect and store more data on their user’s online and social networking activities.
Which Apps Would be Targeted?
Cameron has indicated that any ban would only affect those messaging apps that wholly, or partially, encrypt or destroy data in such a way that it becomes irretrievable by intelligence agencies and security services. The Prime Minister was also quick to point out that any data would only be available to government agencies after a warrant had been approved and personally signed by the Home Secretary. Still, any proposed ban on so called ‘encrypted messaging apps’ does not sit well with privacy groups who remain committed to blocking any legislation that seeks to limit the public’s access to effective privacy tools. The software developers are themselves pushing back against any proposed ban, with companies like WhatsApp confirming their commitment to keeping their services encrypted and free from governmental intrusion.
The Effectiveness of a Messaging Apps Ban
Of course, there is always the question of just how effective an encrypted messaging apps ban can be, and whether or not any legislation can actually prevent the public from using one of the targeted apps. WhatsApp was recently banned in Brazil after the service allegedly failed to cooperate in an investigation linked to “sexually graphic photos of children being shared on the app”. A Brazilian judge ordered the ban at the beginning of February, but so far the app is still available and working as usual. Although the ban was ineffective, and the Brazilian government has made it clear that they intend to pursue the matter, any further action on the part of the authorities is likely to be held up by ongoing litigation.
Cameron’s proposed messaging apps ban faces a number of hurdles, not the least of which is push back from privacy groups, software developers, and the public at large. Sacrificing privacy for security may be a hard sell for the Prime Minister, and any action on the ban is contingent upon him winning reelection in May. Even then it may be a hard slog to pass a ban on messaging apps that is legal, and enforceable. That being said, the Prime Minister appears committed to the idea of a ban on any messaging app that restricts access to data by intelligence agencies and security services. Assuming that Cameron’s reelection bid is successful, and that he can push through the legislation, the proposed ban on encrypted messaging apps could go into effect by 2016.