back to article We ain't afraid of no 'ghost user': Infosec world tells GCHQ to GTFO over privacy-busting proposals

Bruce Schneier, Richard Stallman and a host of western tech companies including Microsoft and WhatsApp are pushing back hard against GCHQ proposals that to add a "ghost user" to encrypted messaging services. The point of that "ghost user", as we reported back in 2018 when this was first floated in its current form, is to apply …


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I would love to hear the response...

      That sounds like the sort of question a terrorist would ask, citizen. Don't you trust Big Brother?

    2. simonb_london

      Re: I would love to hear the response...

      " does this plan differ from the one alleged of China?"

      One difference for me is that I don't actually care if the Chinese government is listening to my conversations quite so much because I know they have no interest in me. Whereas the UK government is a direct threat, or at least a future threat, to its own citizens in the same way as the Chinese government is to theirs.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I would love to hear the response...

        Exactly. I'm unlikely to meet and/or piss off someone in the Chinese hierarchy (occasional Winnie the Pooh reference aside). I'm no threat to China and don't have the contact for personal petty grudges. This is not the case for UK/US where the contact is closer and where it is entirely possible to inadvertently (or deliberately) offend somebody who is in a position to abuse this sort of power to fuck you up.

        Also the Chinese have to pay somebody to translate. A small satisfaction, but vaguely comforting nontheless.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I would love to hear the response...

        '..One difference for me is that I don't actually care if the Chinese government is listening to my conversations quite so much because I know they have no interest in me...'

        I fear you're paying far too much attention to the 'theatre' of international relations, the stuff you see on TV and read in the papers is for the consumption of the masses, and shouldn't be regarded as being a truthful representation of the actual situation. It might be very true that the Chinese have no direct or immediate interest in you and yours, but they might know a man who does...and we're not just talking about the intelligence services of other nation states here (though the old 'you do me a solid, I do you a solid', as the USians say, has always worked there).

        Information is power, all information is valuable to someone, somewhere, and I don't know if you've noticed, but nowadays we do have this global market economy thingy going on round these here parts...

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: I would love to hear the response...

          "the old 'you do me a solid, I do you a solid', as the USians say"

          We do? I've never heard the term used "in the wild" anywhere in the United States.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: I would love to hear the response...

            'We do? I've never heard the term used "in the wild" anywhere in the United States.'

            Sorry, I'm a bit of a walking linguistic anachronism magnet, I can only think that I've picked that one up again recently from the old films and TV shows I've usually got on during the night for background noise whilst I faff around with the doesn't help that I've been adding the contents of a bunch of old slang dictionaries to my local wordlists, so I'm always listening out for 'not-so-odd' odd phrases.

            As to 'in the wild', I have heard it being used both in real life and in/on media, from a quick dig online, 'Do me a solid' seems to have emerged into popular culture back in the mid-late '60s, and it just so happens that I've been working my way through a lot of 50's-60's 'counterculture' films recently during the sleepless nights.

            Prior to that, it appears to have been a regional saying, picked up by musos (where I might have originally heard it..particularly when visiting relatives of that bent in the Detroit area back in '72), used until at least the mid '70s, then having had its day, it disappeared back to local obscurity, and was then resurrected again in '91, which you can blame the writers of Seinfeld for, though as I cordially detest him and his unfunny show, I know I never picked up from there that it was back in use, but I do remember when the Antubis character in 'Kingdom Hospital' first said 'I do you a solid, you do me a solid' I knew I'd heard a similar phrase somewhere before..

            so, ok, maybe I should have said

            ' some unfunny USian 'comedian' and his fans, some ageing USian musicians, some regional USians (Michigan?), some Regular Show writers and fans...(and a very weird fictional anteaterbeastie) say'..

            1. jake Silver badge

              Re: I would love to hear the response...

              I was aware of the expression, all I meant was that I had never actually head anybody using it in RealLife ... aside from shortly after the early '90s Seinfeld episode, when the usual answer was along the lines of "shut up, you pretentious ass" or words to that effect, thus causing the meme to die before it had a life.

              It seems to have originated in the 1920s, probably in the Jazz world of the Mississippi Valley. I have heard it used on a live recording from that era, but for the life of me I can't remember/find the artist and track. I'm fairly certain I digitized it when I archived my Father's collection for him in the mid 1980s ... Would explain your Motown reference.

              Atypically, my Big Dic[0] is fairly useless on the subject.

              [0] OED, second dead tree edition.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I would love to hear the response...

      Well that's not one the BBC's technology correspondent is going to be asking anytime soon.

      Not when the BBC is censoring it's own reporting showing Huawei technology being used by EE. Presumably at the the behest of it's lords and masters.

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So here's a use for blockchain

    Everyone is always touting a bunch of stupid stuff for it like inventory or accounting, where there are already perfectly good solutions. There aren't very many business needs for a tamperproof ledger where neither side trusts the other, but between government and the public? Oh boy, now there's a place where something that fills in the huge lack of trust between the public and their government would really be useful!

    If someone could figure out a way so that adding a 3rd "ghost user" to a conversation required interaction with a blockchain such that it left a record, then there would be a way to track when authorities did that, to count the how many times it was done and verify a court order was properly made in each case.

    Parts of the court order, like who was targeted could/would be redacted of course, but making the blockchain public would allow the public to trust that the capability wasn't being misused for dragnet searches or by stalkers who have access to this as part of their job. It would require cooperation from the provider, but assuming it was automated to provide the ghost user when the court order appeared in the blockchain, there would be an up to the minute view of how much surveillance your government was performing. A smart electorate would demand a limit on how many times it could be used a year - sort of like having a cell plan that isn't unlimited it would force you to budget a bit and not use the capability frivolously.

    I think many people recognize that there is some role for LAWFUL intercept in certain cases. What we're worried about is Big Brother type spying on everything, rather than only targeting terrorists, child molesters etc. which we KNOW will happen if they could get the "backdoor" they seek. If you have a ledger that shows every instance because there's no way to get access to those encrypted comms without leaving an entry behind - and no way to erase the entry - then you can have solely lacking but totally necessary "but verify" part of trusting your government.

    This doesn't address other objections like "but the bad guys will just use something else" which may be true in some cases so you can't get them all, but it has been true ever since the first policeman that some crooks are too smart to get caught. No solution will be perfect, but I'd rather have something like this than have them blackmail companies into giving them backdoors without public knowledge. It already happened once in the US, just because we caught them thanks to Snowden, doesn't mean they wouldn't try it again.

    1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: So here's a use for blockchain

      I think many people recognize that there is some role for LAWFUL intercept in certain cases. What we're worried about is Big Brother type spying on everything, rather than only targeting terrorists, child molesters etc. which we KNOW will happen if they could get the "backdoor" they seek.

      Not a bad idea. The article says the proposal seeks to create "virtual crocodile clips". Fine. Crocodile clips had a big restriction: you couldn't use too many. Any acceptable solution needs to limit the total amount of spying going on -- say, 1000 interceptions per year.

      My enhancement to your proposal would be that there should be a requirement that the full warrant (including the details of the target) should be published at some time in the future, including the id of the relevant blockchain entry. That way we could all keep track of how many unpublished warrants were outstanding at any time.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        I disagree on one point : any acceptable solution must include a warrant approved by a judge whose decision will be recorded and subject to FOI requests.

        It is useless to try and limit the amount of interceptions allowed - how can you ensure they will respect that ? They're already respecting nothing. Put a judge in charge and jail him if he gets too cosy with the spooks. With a public record of intercept warrants, we regain some control of the situation.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So here's a use for blockchain

      "...there is some role for LAWFUL intercept in certain cases."

      Theresa May, when Home Secretary, had about ten "unlawful judgements" made against her during her time in office.

      When the HS is the role model, why wouldn't the underlings operate unlawfully?

      That's why they can't be trusted. They think they are above the law and act accordingly. Whether they get caught is more by luck than judgement.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So here's a use for blockchain

      "What we're worried about is Big Brother type spying on everything"

      How naive. Don't you realise that is the real objective?

      The STASI are their role models.

  2. jake Silver badge

    What would happen if ...

    ... each and every Brit were to ask their government one simple question: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Of course it would be a meaningless question unless TheGreatUnwashed actually understood what they were saying, and implying ... and I rather suspect if anybody were to try to start a grass-roots movement with the intent of making this happen, they would be silenced under existing "terrorism" law.

    "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." --Benjamin Franklin, 1759

    Or put another way, mass surveillance quashes freedom of speech.

  3. Muscleguy

    An 'enemy of the state' writes

    I am a certified enemy of the state (according to the spooks and security 'services'). I'm a paid up member of Scottish CND which wishes the Trident missiles and subs to be gone. Preferably completely but from next door to Scotland's biggest city. They also support Scottish Independence as the best route to achieving this end.

    I also campaigned for independence during our first indyref with the Left/Green alliance RIC (Radical Independence Campaign) and kept going to meetings after the vote itself. I'm also raring to go again, soonest by preference. I'm keeping myself fit for the purpose too.

    So that is a threat to the military's majory weapons system and a seditious* wish to sunder the country in twain.

    *good job Holyrood quashed the Scottish sedition laws in advance of the campaign, handy that.

    Separating us from GCSB etc is part of the point too. We can do better, much better.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: An 'enemy of the state' writes

      Don't worry, you're only an enemy of the 'current' state, and it's fairly benign.

      Should future events transpire to create an independant Scotland you would be then hailed amongst the nations creators. (or possibly purged)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Simply Cost-Cutting

    Given the extent of existing and quite creative snooping (but historically misused), this ridiculous ghost protocol is simply to reduce costs. ;)

    They’ll keep trying, it’s in their psychopathic nature...all agencies without proper oversight.

  5. StuntMisanthrope

    99 red balloons.

    As far as I'm concerned consent at protocol level is not complicit without a warrant. All money, no people in the full document. #nomirrorortapforyou

    1. StuntMisanthrope

      Re: 99 red balloons.

      Gotcha. #regulatorycapture

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. Dhobi Whallah

    "if you create a backdoor for the good guys, the bad guys won't be far behind.."

    "if you create a backdoor for the Government, the other bad guys won't be far behind.."

    There you go, I fixed that for them.

    1. DJV Silver badge

      But, Shirley, your second statement contains redundancies, given that the government ARE the bad guys?

  8. Mark 85
    Big Brother


    Since no one else has said it: "Citizen. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear".

    1. jake Silver badge

      Obligatory Reply

      Might I point out that you don't have a plate glass exterior wall in your shower, and you do have drapes over the windows in your living room & bedroom ... and hopefully there is a door between your toilet and the rest of your house. What are you hiding? Are you a criminal?

      While I'm on the subject, presumably you don't want me to have access to your banking, health and tax information, and you don't want me to be able to access your computer/phone from my computer/phone without your expressed consent, right?

      Privacy isn't always covering something illegal.

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Jake, you forgot to check your sarcasm meter.

        1. jake Silver badge

          No, Pascal, I didn't.

          It was a convenient place to put the obligatory reply. Thus the TitleSubject.

          You would be surprised how many times I've heard people using the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument in regard to this kind of thing[0]. Having a simple two or three line response that almost always makes 'em change their tune is handy. Think of my reply as a public service, not an indictment of the OP.

          [0] My Mom's pastor, an employee at my Credit Union, one of my youngest Nephew's teachers (scary, that one!), a reporter on a local news channel (KGO 7), a dude trying to sell me cut-rate insurance [1] ... and that's just this month.

          [1] Not really surprising, that one ... he got all red and blustery. Made my day :-)

    2. Mephistro

      Re: Obligatory

      "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear"==>"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing!"

      And upvoted for the irony in the comment, too.

  9. Tim99 Silver badge

    The history of Rupert Murdoch's media

    That is all you need to look at.

  10. earl grey

    Dear Snoopers

    That's not your hand and that's not lubricant.

    It's not my turn in the barrel.

    I'm not bending over for you.

    The cake is a lie.

  11. Nick Kew
    Big Brother


    Of course, once you've introduced a backdoor, you need to nudge a bunch of recalcitrant targets into using it. Show them how dangerous their old tools were, and how critical it is they upgrade.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Two can play at that game. If GCHQ introduce a ghost user, I'll introduce a ghost-ghost user. An automatic bot that intercepts the messages I send locally, PGP encrypts them using my recipients public key. The PGP encrypted message can then be (double, I guess) encrypted to the GCHQ ghost users key, and sent onwards. They won't get anything useful from it.

    The end goal of this has never been to catch terrorists. Anyone they have a reasonable suspicion of being involved in terrorism already has their phone, computer, car, house, friends (20 years unless you start spying for us now!), mosque bugged to fuckery and back again. This has always been to impose a dragnet feed of private communications they can slurp and pour into a machine learning algorithm which can start to build a complete personality profile of every single endpoint in the system. And that leads to tyranny, China-style, and I will do everything in my power to oppose it.

    1. Aussie Doc
      Paris Hilton

      Re: No

      "The end goal of this has never been to catch terrorists."

      I think " catch terrorists" is the new "Won't somebody think of the children" catchphrase.

      Hilton because when I was a lot more childish, I used to think of her.

  13. Voidstorm

    " Jake Moore, a security specialist from infosec biz ESET, opined: "This makes a mockery of the fundamental basics of encryption. Not only is it going against what privacy is all about: if you create a backdoor for the good guys, the bad guys won't be far behind."


    This. When will the idiots-in-power realise that you can't keep the "master key" out of the wrong hands?

    Wannacry was enabled by a leaked NSA system breaker, FFS.

    They NEVER LEARN!!!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You argument is based on expecting them to care whether your privacy is compromised.

      They don't. They really don't give a fig.

      They are not your friend.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    always intended as a starting point

    sure, once they've asked nicely and this dance move is out of the way, they'll do it the other way.

  15. JulieM Silver badge

    Epic Fail

    There are exactly two kinds of encryption:

    There is the sort that absolutely nobody but the intended recipient, not even The Authorities, can crack; and there is the sort that The Authorities, and absolutely anybody else with the inclination, can crack.

    There is nothing in between. If there is a way for one party to recover the plaintext without the decryption key, then that way can be used by anyone else who does not have the decryption key to recover the plaintext.

    This is not a limitation of present technology, that will be solved when something is invented. It is a limitation of mathematics, and nothing that could be invented would make the slightest bit of difference.

    We honestly need to give up on the idea of encryption backdoors. The first type of encryption exists, and there is no way to prevent a really determined person from using it anyway: encrypted traffic on a network is indistinguible from noise, and in any case there are plenty of ways to pass information entirely outside of that network. Forcing people to use the second type is going to lead to data leakage.

  16. Trollslayer

    One big fat target

    Hackers get that and they get everything.

  17. The Central Scrutinizer

    This is becoming like Groundhog Day. The same shite repeated over and over. "Responsible encryption" yada yada. It's a binary proposition. Either there is encryption or there isn't.

    I keep banging on about this to anyone who will listen, but no one cares. Mr and Mrs average computer user have no fucking clue what this means for them. As long as they can post their trivia on social media, who cares, right?

    1. Wild Elk

      Don’t worry mate, as long as we can spy on the terrorists, you’ll be safe to post your memes in peace.

      Might as well rid off the “encryption” as this whole shenanigans defeats the purpose.

  18. El Drago

    Once is enough

    I thought it would only take one WannaCry style incident to convince GCHQ and others that nobody but us capabilities did not work.

  19. adam payne

    "We welcome this response to our request for thoughts on exceptional access to data – for example to stop terrorists.

    Oh you just had get the t word in there. Trying to make it sound like it's for our own good eh?

    Is there some government process that states that you have to use the word terrorist when releasing a statement?!?!

    We will continue to engage with interested parties and look forward to having an open discussion to reach the best solutions possible."

    You'd rather have a closed door discussion would you?

  20. charlieboywoof

    Insert Applicable Terrorist Flavour

    ............................who was know to the authorities.

  21. Wild Elk

    “Ghost user aka spanner”

    The ghost user nonsense is the equivalent to the spanner and password analogy.

    These guys know how long it will take to break the encryption so they come up this lazy solution as an excuse to spy on dissenters while dressing it with paedos, terrorists etc. who will use more secure alternatives.

  22. Harry Stottle

    A modest Constitutional Proposal

    Difficult to control the increasing rage I feel as we continue to see these recurring attempts to bully the public and politicians into accepting egregious invasions of privacy with all its risks to civil society that others have mentioned.

    I think its time we organised a major constitutional challenge, beginning with a petition on the government website and funded by a crowd-sourcing campaign. I hereby propose a first draft of such a plan:

    The aim would be to render illegal the imposition of any communication controls which have the potential to be abused in ways I don't need to repeat, in detail, here; but certainly including any threats to dissent, free association and standard privacy expectations.

    The relevant Law would further make it a mandatory condition of employment that

    a) anyone witnessing such abuse would be guilty of abetting that crime if they fail to report it

    b) anyone proposing the implementation of such controls or any other attempt to bypass the law, would be guilty of the new crime

    Ideally I would also like to ban any politician proposing such a change in policy from holding office for a period of ten years but that implies a limitation on free speech which I can't defend.

    None of the above implies that such intrusive surveillance can never be permitted. The conditions under which it may be permitted, however, must be strictly confined to the following conditions:

    1) the surveillance attack must be limited to an individual or tightly defined small group of related individuals who are suspected, as a result of legitimate intelligence sources, of committing or planning acts which could result in significant physical harm to other citizens, serious damage to property (eg a cost in excess of £500k) or serious financial fraud (eg a value in excess of £1m)

    (i.e. the law will explicitly recognise that intrusive surveillance is not justifiable for "trivial" matters)

    2) the decision making process and the implementation of the attack must all be digitally recorded and the records protected by timestamped hashes stored on immutable hash-chains or block-chains (see my previous thoughts on Accountability Theatre for more detail)

    3) a civil audit team (12-20 experts), independent of both government and the intelligence agencies must be informed of the existence of all such planned attacks prior to their implementation and must have unfettered access to the data and decision makers, together with the legal right to raise objections both with the courts and, if they deem fit, with the media. They also have the unfettered right to publish summaries and reports on the operation of this monitored surveillance regime as and when they see fit.

    4) that audit team must include experts in ALL the relevant fields (Law, Civil Liberties, Intelligence/Surveillance and Crypto). They should be selected by a process similar to jury selection but from a restricted publicly visible pool of a few thousand volunteer experts. The state and normal citizens can have the right to object to selected members of that pool and to propose their exclusion, on publicly stated grounds, but these proposed exclusions must themselves be approved by an ad hoc jury randomly drawn from other members of the pool who have not been selected for exclusion (and can, therefore, be assumed to be widely trusted)

    5) No prosecution would be permitted to include Surveillance based intelligence unless it is certified by the auditors as having been gathered under the new legal conditions. The defence team would be entitled to a more detailed report from the auditors to justify the use of the intelligence, though the auditors would have the discretion to withhold details which could damage the operation of the intelligence gathering process or key individuals involved in it.

    Any questions?

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: A modest Constitutional Proposal

      Hereby, Heartily Seconded, Harry Stottle.

      A Cleaned Level Playing Field makes for All Manner of Novel Shenanigans Possible. ..... with Everyone a Relative Newbie to Advanced IntelAIgent Control in Command.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A modest Constitutional Proposal

      Yeah, GLWT.

      I expect it will become law a century after Brexit.

      1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

        Re: A modest Constitutional Proposal

        Yes, it is most odd and sad and mad, AC, that all are so easily fooled and led into further anarchy and deeper chaos by all manner of puppets always promising good and honest times in the new places and spaces of tomorrow at the cost of all ignorant and arrogant support having to suffer the platitudes and prognostications of yesterday's thoughts today.

        A simple perusal this morning of UKGBNI leadership contenders in the pressed media comics has wonderful cake and fresh cheese displayed as a ready replacement for the bread and water they're responsible for delivering to the present.

        Charlatans and Fraudsters in the Pockets of the Economic Terrorist with Lazy Fiat Tools be They. And Ripe Rotten to its Cores be their Sources. J'accuse.

        And then Secret Government Intelligence Services wonder why they do Great Unwinnable Battle against Phantom Foe that are Invincible and Invisible and Indivisible ‽ .

        Defending and Protecting the Indefensible and Perverted is for Naive Dummies and the Uncomfortably Corrupted and a Poisoned Apple Fruit to Savour and Favour. To Enjoy and Tolerate it is Surely a Vote for Certain Unpleasant Premature Death?

        1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

          Re: A modest Constitutional Proposal

          WTF Holy Smoke? No Future Pioneers here on El Reg?

          I think we can safely say, surely not to that. With the Evidence for Defence of their Presents always shared and hosted here for excellent critical acclaim and/or virtual derision. And IMPortant Silences are Deafeningly Exciting whenever the Next Righty Royal Role Plays are Always Being Tested for Future Immaculate Services in FeedBack.

          Q: A Passion/Line being fed MZuckerberg? Or are the Greater Experiences Discovered There Best Servered to be Explored and Exploited when Home Alone and in the Midsts that are Friends ...

          Q2: That's a Hell of Target? Gonna Deserve Lodes of Funny Money Honey, and aint that the Slick Hick Mick Bonus Prize.

          Q3: Because of Q1 and Q2 has FeedBack been hacked and cracked wide open and deep down to raw core source input?

          Q4: Are there AIMasterPlans for Pentagonal Rule ......... with Almighty Attacking Forces Ensuring Safety and Security in Defence of Realms, .... Alien Terrain?

          Q5: What Decides? Who Presses the Right from Wrong Switch? Who makes such Fantastic Choices freely available?

          Ah... that's better. That was just a little something that was weighing too heavily on my chest, so to ensure future sight and sharing of the situation follows similar trails as have been oft experienced and thoroughly enjoyed, I though best and quickest, simply share it.

          Be aware and beware there'll be Ack Ack Fire ..... while Secure Real-time Transport Protocols are Hardened Against Unauthorised Use of Facilities and Utilities .....

  23. Earth Resident

    If you want to stop terrorists, stop sending them money and weapons

    GCHQ wants all your info, but needs the threat of terrorism as an excuse. Banks and and weapons makers want countries to buy more bombs, missiles, and drones in order to protect themselves from terrorism. Global hegemons want to send their armies to as many countries as possible in order to advise them in fighting terrorism.

    Is it any surprise that the US, UK, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and so forth organize and pay terrorist groups to create unrest, start civil wars, fight with well-publicized brutality making sure to attack each one of the countries in the coalition so they can in turn use the reports of attacks to manufacture consent in their own countries? In these unnecessary wars for profit, what makes money for everyone is terrorism -- and more of it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: If you want to stop terrorists, stop sending them money and weapons

      If you want to stop terrorists, stop making new ones.


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