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Good Lord: Former UK spy boss backs crypto

'Counter-terrorism not the only national security threat we face'

A former boss at UK domestic spy arm MI5 has cautioned against a crackdown on encrypted messaging apps.

Lord Evans, who retired in 2013, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (link here) that he did not support encryption restrictions despite acknowledging cryptography had been an obstacle in investigating terrorist cases, saying that capabilities to access comms had been “eroded”.

“I’m not personally one of those who thinks we should weaken encryption because I think there is a parallel issue, which is cybersecurity more broadly,” Lord Evans said.

“Whilst understandably there is a very acute concern about counter-terrorism, it is not the only national security threat that we face. It’s very important that we should be seen and be a country in which people can operate securely – that’s important for our commercial interests as well as our security interests. Encryption in that context is very positive.”

Lord Evans' comments follow along the same line as former GCHQ director Robert Hannigan's earlier criticism against building backdoors into end-to-end encryption (e2) schemes as a means to intercept communications by terrorists.

Hannigan argued at the time that the best and most practical solution would be for security services to "target the people who are abusing" encryption systems and go after the devices themselves – ie, the smartphone or laptops they are using.

Both perspectives stand in contrast with UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s criticism of mobile messaging services which offer end-to-end encryption, such as WhatsApp, in the wake of recent terror outrages such as the Westminster Bridge attack.

In a wide-ranging interview, Lord Evans also said that the Snowden revelations had had a negative effect on law enforcement investigations. Child abusers, for example, have adopted more advanced tactics in streaming abuse via dark net chatrooms. He also commented on the need to secure the IoT and allegations of Russian interference in foreign elections.

“It would be extremely surprising if the Russians were interested in interfering in America and in France and in various other European countries but were not interested in interfering with the UK, because traditionally I think we have been seen as quite hawkish,” he said. ®

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