Well, that didn’t exactly go entirely according to plan, did it?
UK Prime Minister David Cameron flew into Washington last week for an extended pre-election photo opportunity, climaxing with a side-by-side ‘special relationship’ session or two with President Obama during which the two would call on Facebook, Twitter et al to toe the line on global terror.
It almost went according to plan, except for the single inconvenient fact that Obama wasn’t ready to endorse Cameron’s demand that social media firms should abandon encryption and allow government authorities to access messages and email in the name of combatting terrorist attacks.
At a joint press conference with the President, Cameron declaimed:
I take a very simple approach to this, which is ever since we've been sending letters to each other or making telephone calls to each other or mobile phone calls to each other or, indeed, contacting each other on the internet, it has been possible in both our countries in extremis, in my country by signed warrant by the Home Secretary, to potentially listen to a call between two terrorists, to stop them in their activity.
In your country, a judicial process. We've had our own. We're not asking for back doors. We believe in very clear front doors through legal processes that should help to keep our country safe.
My only argument is that as technology develops, as the world moves on, we should try to avoid the safe havens that could otherwise be created for terrorists to talk to each other.
That's the goal that I think is so important.
But Obama wasn’t quite as ‘gung-ho’ in his response, warning against ‘over-reaction’ to the events in Paris:
It is useful to have civil libertarians and others tapping us on the shoulder in this process and reminding us that there are values at stake as well. We shouldn't feel as if because we've just seen such a horrific attack in Paris, that suddenly everything should be going by the wayside.
I don't think that there is a situation in which because things are so much more dangerous the pendulum needs to swing.
Social media and the Internet is the primary way in which these terrorist organizations are communicating. That’s not different from anybody else, but they’re good at it and when we have the ability to track that in a way that is legal, conforms with due process, rule of law and presents oversight, then that’s a capability that we have to preserve.
What we have to find is a consistent framework whereby our publics have confidence that their government can both protect them but not abuse our capacity to operate in cyber space.
Because this is all new world, as David said the laws that may have been designed for the traditional wiretap have to be updated. How we do that needs to be debated, both here in the US and in the UK.
Cameron is under pre-election pressure from right-wing media in the UK to clamp down on the likes of Facebook. While these outlets have yet to top the astonishing ignorance of Fox News and its declarations that entire UK cities are non-Muslim no-go zones (see below), the likes of the Daily Mail newspaper regularly takes the position of calling for security clampdowns on social media firms, such as Facebook "the arrogant US internet company", accusing them of effectively aiding terrorists.
Unbelievably stupid 'reporting'
On the other hand, Obama emphasised his belief that social media firms are aware of the challenges facing them:
They’re patriots. They have families that they want to see protected.
I think that companies, here in the US at least, recognise that they have a responsibility to the public, but also want to make sure that they are meeting their responsibilities to their customers that are using their products.
It is clear however that Cameron’s comments in London last week - which critics noted effectively called for an end to encryption - don’t sit easily with the US administration or with the tech industry.
Michael Beckerman, the head of the Internet Association, which represents Facebook, Google and other tech giants, said:
Just as governments have a duty to protect the public from threats, Internet services have a duty to our users to ensure the security and privacy of their data. That’s why Internet services have been increasing encryption security, and that’s why government access to data should be rule-bound, transparent, and tailored.
Accusations of naiveté since his technologically illiterate speech in London last week, plus the lukewarm response from Obama, may explain a flurry of ‘taken out of context’ re-positioning by the Prime Minister:
We’re not asking for backdoors. We’re asking for very clear front doors through legal processes to help keep our country safe.
That said, Obama was polite, but insistent in his message that:
It's important for Europe not to simply respond with a hammer and law enforcement and military approaches to these problems.
But there’s a clear danger of a drifting apart of US and European policy emerging now, with the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declaring:
We have to focus on the Internet and social networks, which are more than ever used to recruit, organize and disseminate technical knowhow to commit terrorist acts.
We must go further.
There are also divisions with the European Union, with Germany striking a different note to France and to Cameron’s rhetoric. Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the German media:
We must do all we can to make our country as secure as possible, but there will never be absolute security. Total surveillance of all of us for no reason would change nothing about that. An exceptional situation requires exceptional measures—but never exceptional measures that would undermine our core principles, laws and values.
On a more positive note, Obama and Cameron were able to announce that the UK’s MI5 and GCHQ will team up with their US counterparts at the National Security Agency and the FBI to run joint ‘war games’ to simulate online attacks on the City of London and Wall Street. This will be followed up by further tests on the critical national infrastructure in the two countries, such as the computer systems controlling power supplies and the road and rail networks.
Last week’s glad-handing with the good and the great in Washington needs to be seen against not only the wider context of the war on terror, but also the more opportunistic needs of Cameron to shore up his international statesman image before the UK election in May.
Such needs have led to the excruciating declaration from a proud Prime Minister that Obama refers to him as ‘bro’. For those of us in the UK, there are 4 months of this sort of thing to come…
Away from the political agenda. Obama’s cool response to Cameron’s knee-jerk and ill-thought-through social media clampdowns is welcome. There’s clearly, as he said, an urgent need to re-appraise our attitudes and approaches to surveillance in an internet-enabled conflict. But as we said last week, playing to the ‘internet-phobic’ right-wing media gallery is not the way to go about that.