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Forget WhatsApp and Snapchat: it’s Apple iMessage and FaceTime that Cameron wants to ban

Prime Minister threatens ban on apps that offer end-to-end encryption in "fight against terror"

British Prime Minister David Cameron is facing a potential showdown with Apple, after he threatened to ban services that encrypt messages that cannot be intercepted by the security services. Speaking in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Prime Minister threatened to legislate against end-to-end encryption of messages during the next Parliament. 

In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which, even in extremis with a signed warrant from the Home Secretary, that we cannot read?” said Cameron. “My answer to that question is no we must not.”

Although the Prime Minister didn’t identify any services by name, there are numerous high-profile apps that offer the encryption of messages that he rails against. WhatsApp and Snapchat both encrypt communications between users, although according to a Secure Messaging Scorecard created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), both providers hold the encryption keys, meaning they could gain access to users’ messages if they were forced to by security services. 

Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime messaging services do offer end-to-end encryption, however, preventing Apple from reading the content of messages even if the company is served with a warrant from the security services. What’s more, even if security services did manage to get hold of a user’s current encryption key, it wouldn’t give them access to past messages, because keys are continually changed between messaging sessions. 

In an update to Apple’s privacy policy last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook made it clear that the company would never co-operate with security services attempting to intercept its customers’ communications. “I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services,” Cook wrote. “We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will.”

Apple’s stance puts the ball in the British government’s court. Unless Apple performs a highly unlikely U-turn on its privacy policy, the government will either be forced to ban the use of iMessage and FaceTime in Britain – a move that would be highly unpopular with iPhone users – or accept that it will not have access to messages sent using the services. 

Even if the government did ban Apple’s messaging services, there are plenty of others to take its place, many of which operate outside of British jurisdiction. The EFF’s scorecard lists more than 30 messaging services offering some form of encryption, several of which – including CryptoCat, Silent Phone and TextSecure – offer even greater protection than Apple, by preventing eavesdroppers from even identifying who you were messaging, for example. 

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