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Apple, Google, WhatsApp hit out at GCHQ proposal to spy on your encrypted chats

The GCHQ suggestion means law enforcement agencies could drop in on your chats, and you wouldn't receive a notification.

Published onMay 30, 2019

A WhatsApp app icon closeup on a smartphone. This is the featured image for the most common apps on android
  • Almost 50 companies and organizations have signed an open letter criticizing a snooping proposal.
  • The proposal, by the British GCHQ intelligence agency, details a way for authorities to spy in chat apps.
  • The Ghost Proposal would allow app developers to silently add law enforcement to chats and calls.

A coalition of almost 50 companies and organizations have signed an open letter slamming a GCHQ proposal to let authorities spy on encrypted communication services.

The so-called Ghost Proposal, first published late last year, calls for communication app developers to silently add law enforcement agencies to group chats or calls. In other words, your app or communication service wouldn’t pop up with a notification to alert you to these unwelcome guests.

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“You end up with everything still being end-to-end encrypted, but there’s an extra ‘end’ on this particular communication,” GCHQ claimed in the proposal, arguing that it wouldn’t weaken encryption.

Now, a group of 47 companies and organizations have signed an open letter to criticize the suggestion. Signatories include Apple, Google, Microsoft, WhatsApp, Human Rights Watch, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The group says the Ghost Proposal would “undermine the authentication process that enables users to verify that they are communicating with the right people, introduce potential unintentional vulnerabilities, and increase risks that communications systems could be abused or misused.”

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A WhatsApp app icon closeup on a smartphone.

Speaking of abuse and misuse, the authors point to examples of current data access practices being open to abuse.

“For example, a former police officer in the U.S. discovered that ‘104 officers in 18 different agencies across the state had accessed her driver’s license record 425 times, using the state database as their personal Facebook service,'” read an excerpt of the letter, adding that the proposal opens up another avenue for this kind of abuse.

The authors of the open letter also say there’s nothing to stop repressive regimes or countries with poor human rights records from using this mooted system. Do you think this Ghost Proposal is a good idea? Let us know in the comments!

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