A better-quality debate needs to be held on state surveillance powers, David Cameron has said after the conservative-leaning Spectator magazine warned that Britain is in danger of ending up like China and Russia where encrypted communications are banned.
The prime minister, who was speaking in Washington before he opened two days of talks with Barack Obama over dinner at the White House last night, called for a raising of the quality of debate in the wake of the Spectator article.
Cameron spoke out after the Spectator challenged his plans to create a legal framework to allow the intelligence agencies to break into the encrypted communications of terror suspects on the grounds that the Paris attackers were working on their own.
The Spectator wrote: “If anything, the trend in terrorism is towards more lone-wolf attacks. It is far from clear how they can be countered, but one thing is for sure: it is not through surveillance. Unless in the habit of talking to themselves, lone wolves have not much need to communicate their plans.”
The prime minister said: “We have a very robust system. The public would expect us to be able, in extremis, under the law with all these conditions in place to be able to try to prevent terrorist outrages … If you read the Spectator this week there is an assertion that because we are dealing with line wolf attacks, lone wolves don’t communicate with anybody and so all these powers are meaningless. That is so far off the truth … we need to up the quality of the debate.”
Cameron defended his plans to create a new legal framework to allow the agencies to keep pace with technological changes as they seek to maintain access to the data and content of communications.
He said: “The principle we should adopt is that there shouldn’t be a safe space for terrorists to communicate. When we first established a system for sending letters to people, then fixed telephone communications to people and then mobile telephone communications to people – the view of the British parliament and the British government, rather similar to the US, was in extremis, under the law under a signed a warrant it should be possible to look at the content of a communication to keep people safe.
“This is something done within a very clear legal framework we have in the UK. There are two issues. There is communications data – the information about when a phone call was made, who to, who from. We obviously need to make sure that is modernised in the internet age. The second set of issues is around the actual intercepting of the content of a call or a communication which again has to be modernised in the internet age.”
Cameron added: “Post Snowden, everyone assumes there are all sorts of activities going on outside the law. That is not the case. There is a legal framework in the UK for everything that happens. I think there isn’t this conflict, that some people say, between liberty and security. In order to maintain our liberty we need to have proper security. This security is provided within the law and the proper legal framework.”
The Spectator was scathing about his plans. It wrote: “He wants to ban all kinds of encrypted communications which the security forces struggle to decipher. ‘I think we cannot allow modern forms of communication to be exempt from the ability, in extremis, with a warrant signed by the home secretary, to be listened to,’ he said.
“The implication is that Britain could end up joining the group of countries, which includes Russia, China and Iran, where using services such as Snapchat and WhatsApp – which encrypt messages in just the way David Cameron suggests – is forbidden.”