GCHQ boss denies Snooper’s Charter will weaken encryption

An aerial shot of the GCHQ building
(Image credit: Ministry of Defence)

Robert Hannigan, the director of UK spy agency GCHQ, has hit out at claims his agency and its counterparts in the USA are attempting to break strong encryption.

Speaking at MIT, Hannigan called the use of the term 'backdoor' in reference to encryption an overused and misapplied metaphor that "illustrates the confusion of the ethical debate in what is a highly-charged and technically complex area".

"I am not in favour of banning encryption. Nor am I asking for mandatory backdoors," he added. "I am puzzled by the caricatures in the current debate, where almost every attempt to tackle the misuse of encryption by criminals and terrorists is seen as a 'backdoor'."

Hannigan called on the memory of Turing and his Bletchley Park team who cracked the German enigma code during World War II to support his point.

"The exploitation of a few key flaws in the otherwise brilliant design of the commercial Enigma machine ... enabled Allied victory, and not only, as Eisenhower acknowledged, saved thousands of Allied lives, but also brought the Holocaust to an end before the Nazis could complete their task," said Hannigan.

"Even though it was very large scale, it would be hard to argue that this was not proportionate, particularly in wartime," he added.

Hannigan also denied that the Investigatory Powers Bill, also known as the Snooper's Charter, would give any new encryption-busting powers to intelligence agencies, which has been one of the key criticisms of the legislation.

Instead, he said it "tries to put in one place powers which were spread across numerous statutes".

"On encryption, it simply repeats the position of earlier legislation: where access to data is legally warranted, companies should provide data in clear where it is practicable or technically feasible to do so," said Hannigan. "No-one in the UK government is advocating the banning or weakening of encryption."

Hannigan did suggest, however, that the tech industry and the intelligence community should be working more closely together and try to find a workable solution to their differences.

"We need a new relationship between the tech sector, academia, civil society and government agencies. We should be bridging the divide, sharing ideas and building a constructive dialogue in a less highly-charged atmosphere," said Hannigan.

Stating that the UK government is "fully committed" to such a collaborative approach, Hannigan added: "This will be a dialogue that starts from the position I've set out today - that the government and its agencies support, and want to actively promote, effective encryption."

"For my part my promise today is to engage in that process with the tech industry openly, respectfully, and in good faith," he concluded.

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Image Credit: By Ministry of Defence (http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk/) [OGL], via Wikimedia Commons

Jane McCallion
Managing Editor

Jane McCallion is ITPro's Managing Editor, specializing in data centers and enterprise IT infrastructure. Before becoming Managing Editor, she held the role of Deputy Editor and, prior to that, Features Editor, managing a pool of freelance and internal writers, while continuing to specialize in enterprise IT infrastructure, and business strategy.

Prior to joining ITPro, Jane was a freelance business journalist writing as both Jane McCallion and Jane Bordenave for titles such as European CEO, World Finance, and Business Excellence Magazine.