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Cameron and Obama arrange US/UK cyber-attack war games, mount pressure against encryption

Fri 16 Jan 2015

Britain and the United States will cooperate in a series of ‘war games’ intended to simulate cyber-attacks on major institutions and companies in both countries.

Prime minister David Cameron is currently on an official visit to Washington for formal discussions with president Barack Obama regarding the future of cyber-security for both nations.

Speaking from Washington on the Today programme in advance of the talks, Cameron said that eight out of ten “large companies” in the UK have suffered “some sort of cyber-attack”, though he did not specify the scope or nature of the attacks in question, nor the time-frame covered.

The war-games will commence this summer on a rolling basis as a cooperative effort between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.

Cameron said: “we have got hugely [capable] security defences and the expertise – and that is why we should combine and set up cyber cells on both sides of the Atlantic to share information, not only to work out how we best protect ourselves but create a system where hostile states and hostile organisations know they should not try to attack us.”

On Monday Cameron added his voice to several months’ worth of complaint from a series of politicians and high officials about the increasing trend towards online encryption. The argument, as also put forward in recent months by MI5 chief Andrew Parker, FBI director James Comey, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, among others, is that the use of encryption and ‘zero knowledge’ storage may be an impedance to the effective investigation of terrorist activity by authorities in the UK and the USA. Speaking on Monday, the prime minister stated that there should be “No means of communication [which] we cannot read.”

Today Cameron said: “Britain and America face the same challenge. We need in extremis to be able to interrupt the contact between terrorists, whether they are using fixed phones mobile phones or the internet, and we need to work with the internet companies – we have good relations with them – to make sure we get people safe so it is a conversation to have with the President but a conversation we both need to have with the companies concerned.”

In practical terms this would mean alterations in the default or fundamental settings of smartphone operating systems such as Apple’s iOs8 and Google’s Android, as well as new legislation regarding the use of ZKS providers, VPNs and encrypted browsers which use the U.S. military’s Onion Router protocol.

The most famous use to date of the U.S. Navy-developed Tor (The Onion Router) was by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who employed the software to communicate leaked documents from his time with the agency over the last few years.

The Guardian notes that recent new leaks from Snowden outline a ‘five year forecast’ by the NSA in 2009 which actively criticised the lack of the use of online encryption, citing it as the “best defence” for end-users to protect their private data. The report, which praises Google and other large U.S. tech entities for their use of the very encryption that Cameron and Obama are now presenting as a potential threat, was shared at the time with GCHQ.


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