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Head of Britain tech security agency backs encryption

The director of GCHQ, the super-secret British equivalent of America’s National Security Agency, said on Monday that his country doesn’t want to weaken the encryption features in smartphones and computers, to make it easier to track terrorists and criminals.

While refusing to weigh in on the fight between Apple Inc., and the US government, Robert Hannigan urged technology companies and governments to instead develop a joint strategy that will provide police and intelligence agencies the data they need, while preserving the public’s right to digital privacy.

“I’m not in favor of banning encryption, nor am I asking for mandatory back doors,” Hannigan told his audience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday. That’s a substantial shift from last year, when Hannigan’s boss, British Prime Minister David Cameron, propsed forcing tech companies to provide a way to access their customers’ encrypted files.


But Hannigan warned that encrypted computers and smartphones are now routinely used by criminals and terrorists to cover their tracks. He refused to comment on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s effort to force Apple Inc. to crack the security on an iPhone used by one of the killers in last year’s massacre in San Bernadino, Calif. But Hannigan did say that that the tense relations between technologists and intelligence agencies must be replaced with a new effort to find common ground.

“We should be trying to bridge the divide, and sharing ideas and building dialog in a less highly-charged atmosphere,” Hannigan said. But he couldn’t suggest any near-term solutions to the problem, and admitted that a simple resolution is unlikely.

Hannigan heads up Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, a direct descendent of the Bletchley Park think tank which cracked German codes during World War II and developed Colossus, the world’s first digital computer. Today, GCHQ intercepts and analyzes digital communications from around the world, in cooperation with the American NSA and similar agencies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand—an intelligence-sharing alliance known as the “Five Eyes.”


For security reasons, Hannigan’s visit to the MIT campus wasn’t announced to the public until Monday morning. Nevertheless, a sizable crowd turned out, including former Boston police chief Edward Davis, who now runs a security consultancy.

Davis backed the FBI’s demand that Apple help the agency break into the iPhone. But he warned, “these issues are going to continue.and they’re going to involve companies that are beyond the court’s reach.” Davis noted that US law can’t touch phones or software produced in other countries. If American companies are required to crack their own phones, many people around the world will switch to non-US products, with possibly devastating effects on the US tech industry.

“It’s a business problem, it’s a privacy problem and it’s a legal issue,” Davis said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.