Apple, Google, Microsoft and others refuse GCHQ's proposal to eavesdrop messaging apps

Josh Peachey's picture
by Josh Peachey

A group of technology companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, have rejected UK spy chiefs' proposal to listen in on encrypted conversations. 

GCHQ, UK's communications intelligence agency, wanted to introduce a "ghost key" to messaging apps such as Whatsapp that would mean they could read encrypted conversations. 

A coalition of 47 tech companies, privacy campaign groups and cybersecurity experts responded to the proposal yesterday, saying that adding a silent third participant to online conversations undermines trust and security. 

Last November, two senior GCHQ directors wrote a blog post saying that it should be “relatively easy for a service provider to silently add a law enforcement participant to a group chat or call”.

GCHQ wanted to listen to encrypted conversations to monitor potential terrorist threats. 

Tech platforms and mobile phone companies are compelled by law to hand over information to the authorities on matters of national security but the companies have so far resisted doing anything that might undermine end to end encryption.

Spelling out their objections, the coalition of tech giants stated that the “ghost proposal” would require service providers to “surreptitiously inject a new public key into a conversation in response to a government demand”. 

The coalition's rejection justified their position by saying: “In order to ensure the government is added to the conversation in secret, GCHQ’s proposal would require messaging apps, service providers, and operating systems to change their software so that it would change the encryption schemes used, and/or mislead users by suppressing the notifications that routinely appear when a new communicant joins a chat.”

Such changes, the signatories argued, would lead to a loss of trust in the messaging services as well as weakened cybersecurity. 

Ian Levy, one of the co-authors of the blog post calling for a ghost key said: “We will continue to engage with interested parties and look forward to having an open discussion to reach the best solutions possible."