GCHQ chief Robert Hannigan has described the anonymous Tor network as a “brilliant invention” but one that highlights the growing problem of encrypted services.
Hannigan gave a long speech at MIT covering many aspects of the current technology landscape, touching on encryption, surveillance and the balance between civil liberties and data access that agencies such as GCHQ have to strike.
He cited Tor as a clear example of “the ethical problem” that encryption presents. "Tor is the most topical example: a brilliant invention that is still invaluable to those who need high degrees of anonymity, notably dissidents, human rights advocates and journalists, but an invention that is these days dominated in volume by criminality of one sort or another," he said.
However, despite the difficulties caused by encryption, or that of the iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters the FBI is trying to unlock, Hannigan maintained that encryption is still important.
“I am not in favour of banning encryption. Nor am I asking for mandatory backdoors. 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'," he said.
"It is an over-used metaphor, or at least misapplied in many cases, and I think it illustrates the confusion of the ethical debate in what is a highly charged and technically complex area."
Instead, Hannigan said that governments need to start tackling the encryption problem with more nuanced legislation, something the UK is pursuing with the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB).
"In the UK we have just embarked on a new discussion of these broad issues and powers," he said, adding that the new bill is not an attempt to gain new powers, but more a move to codify the powers that already exist in a single statute.
“It does not give the intelligence agencies new powers but tries to put in one place powers which were spread across numerous statutes,” he said.
Hannigan also denied claims that there is any intention to ban or weaken encryption. “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. No-one in the UK government is advocating the banning or weakening of encryption,” he explained.
Hannigan countered the argument of those who claim that monitoring major web channels will do nothing to stop terrorists communicating, arguing that it will make it easier to track them on lesser used platforms.
“Our problem at the moment, in short, is that those who do harm are hiding in the noise of the internet by using what the rest of us use. Pushing them off these channels is surely a shared goal for consumers, industry and government,” he said.
“We do not expect to reach perfection in this, but we need to clear some ground and know where to focus our efforts.”
Despite Hannigan's comments, many are wary of the government's attempt to rush through the IPB, noting numerous concerns relating to data protection, privacy and monitoring, especially given the speed at which the government wants to make the bill law.
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