Apple, WhatsApp, Google and Microsoft challenge GCHQ’s eavesdropping plans

Almost 50 human rights organisations, cybersecurity experts and tech titans aren’t happy about the spy agency’s idea to create a way to listen in on private conversations


The government wants to be able to eavesdrop on your private conversations. Over the years, politicians like Theresa May and Amber Rudd have floated the idea that tech companies should create a backdoor for law enforcement bodies so they could more easily monitor what people are chatting about on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram in order to prevent crimes or acts of terrorism.

These proposals have often been met by serious backlash from tech companies. So when spy agency GCHQ suggested a similar idea, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that big tech firms like MicrosoftGoogle, Apple and WhatsApp together with several civil rights organisations and privacy experts have now vehemently opposed the idea in an open letter.

This latest stage in the debate kicked off in November 2018 when Crispin Robinson, the technical director for cryptanalysis at GCHQ, and Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre, which is part of GCHQ, penned an article titled Principles for a More Informed Exceptional Access Debate. In over 2,800 words, they outlined six principles for when it might be okay for a government to listen in on private conversations, hoping to spark a debate with other parties invested in this topic. 

When writing about how this would work in practise, Robinson and Levy noted: “It’s relatively easy for a service provider to silently add a law enforcement participant to a group chat or call.”

That’s where the open letter’s 49 signatories took issue. The full list included names like Microsoft, Apple, WhatsApp, Google, TechFreedom, The Tor Project and Big Brother Watch. 

Although, they began by welcoming the invite to discuss the topic, writing: “The six principles set forth by GCHQ officials are an important step in the right direction and highlight the importance of protecting privacy rights, cybersecurity, public confidence and transparency.”

However, they criticised the plans to add a “ghost” user in encrypted conversations, arguing it “would violate important human rights principles as well as several of the principles outlined in the GCHQ piece.” 

What the signatories criticism essentially boiled down to was that if you’re creating a backdoor then it would expose the platform to the risk of malicious users taking advantage of it. They added that by enabling a ghost user listen in would therefore “pose serious threats to cybersecurity and thereby also threaten fundamental human rights, including privacy and free expression.”

Levy told Elite Business: “We welcome this response to our request for thoughts on exceptional access to data – for example to stop terrorists. The hypothetical proposal was always intended as a starting point for discussion. It is pleasing to see support for the six principles and we welcome feedback on their practical application.We will continue to engage with interested parties and look forward to having an open discussion to reach the best solutions possible.”

It seems that the debate concerning law enforcement agencies eavesdropping on people’s private conversations is far from over. 

Update: this story was updated at 13.57pm on Friday May 31 to include Ian Levy’s comments. 

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson

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