William Hague to InfoSec community: 'there can be no absolute right to privacy'

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Image: Flickr Creative Commons/Foreign Office

Former foreign secretary and life peer William Hague said that in light of technological developments there can be no absolute right to privacy versus security, and that although the public is in favour of "unbreakable" encryption now, it might not remain so.

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Former foreign secretary William Hague has advised the information security community that public opinion in support of full encryption can be reversed.

Speaking at the Infosec 2016 information security conference today, life peer of Richmond - who personally reviewed interception requests from the secret intelligent services in his previous role - outlined his views on achieving a balance between state surveillance and individual privacy.

Hague said that, in his opinion, there can be no absolute right to privacy with technology.

“If I was advising networks and technology companies offering unbreakable encryption - unbreakable by law enforcement authorities - I would give this advice: public opinion on this issue can turn around very quickly,” Hague said.

“It’s undoubtedly the case that criminal networks are highly sensitive to finding channels of communication they believe will be undetected. It makes all the difference between them going to jail or not.

“Each case that comes to light in tax evasion, gang brutality, modern slavery, terrorist attack, is cumulatively damaging to the case for unbreakable encryption.

“In a world where private information can quite often protect the tax payer or stop a multitude of crimes or save lives, in my view there can ultimately be no absolute right to privacy.

“There can be many powerful constraints on intruding into that ... there has to be what there has been in the past, a sense of shared responsibility between the service providers and governments to protect both privacy and security as best they can.”

But due to security threats directed to the “mass of the population,” Hague said he “can’t see that an absolute right to privacy will withstand the pressure of argument and events over the coming years”.

“And I would bear that in mind if I was any of those companies,” he added. “I think the laws in most western societies will only end up in one place: reaffirming the right of national security on strong law enforcement grounds to be able to gain access to information.”

Hague has previously faced criticism for speaking out against encryption in light of the Brussels terrorist attacks. In that instance, the perpetrators had allegedly used pre-paid ‘burner’ phones to communicate with one another – without any encryption at all.

And just yesterday, a draft report from British intelligence entitled the Digint Programme was leaked to The Intercept. In it, there are doubts cast on whether the mass collection of data is actually particularly useful. The report claims that amidst all the noise, “life-saving intelligence data” could be overlooked.

He also pointed the finger once again at NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, claiming that the extent of the leaks about worldwide surveillance led by the USA and Britain had changed criminal behaviour.

“The Snowden affair led many people to change their behaviour,” he said. “It’s also led many people to be alarmed about whether the balance between privacy and security is correct.”

Hague also said that the Investigatory Powers Bill – currently in the later stages of making its way through Parliament and colloquially known as the Snooper’s Charter – is an “overhaul” that addresses these privacy concerns.

He said that if citizens were privy to the procedure behind interception warrants – that they can only be signed off by a secretary of state, “in practice the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, or the Northern Ireland secretary” – then the population would not be so concerned.

“It’s accompanied by voluminous legal advice,” he said. “The secretary can make his or her own opinion about it, and if people could see that in action they could see how ridiculous the idea of a ‘Snooper’s Charter’ is.”

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