The wrong way to fight terror

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson listens at left as President Barack Obama speaks at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. Obama renewed his call for Congress to pass cybersecurity legislation, including a proposal that encourages companies to share threat information with the government and protects them from potential lawsuits if they do. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

British Prime Minister David Cameron has met the enemy, and they are selfies.

Mr. Cameron announced earlier this month that he would endorse laws that could potentially ban encrypted forms of digital communication that cannot be decoded by law enforcement. That would include such commonly used programs as Snapchat, Whatsapp and Apple iMessage, all of which can be used to send text and multimedia messages on smartphones.

Some other apps have back doors that allow law enforcement and national security officials to access and decrypt messages under special circumstances.

Mr. Cameron’s proposal seeks to prevent terrorists from communicating on platforms that cannot be decoded, even with a warrant. How the British government would enforce such a ban remains unclear, given the nation’s broad online freedom and the difficulty of selectively cutting off access to certain parts of the Internet.

If Mr. Cameron wins in the May general election and keeps a sizeable Conservative Party coalition in parliament, he could put pressure on app developers to provide a way for law enforcement to decrypt messages in the future.

But making the election a referendum on Snapchat would be a surefire way to alienate almost every voter with a smartphone — which incidentally is a lot of voters.

Meanwhile, President Obama proposed last week — and reiterated his support for Tuesday night in his State of the Union address — laws that would facilitate data sharing between private online businesses and the Department of Homeland Security.

While most companies, including giants like Facebook and Google, already cooperate with many law enforcement and national security requests for information on certain users, new regulations could streamline the process.

He also called for establishing national protocols for data breaches, such as a timeline for hacked businesses to inform customers whose information may have been compromised.

Helping ensure that companies handle increasingly common hacking crises in a timely manner and are forthcoming with information for those customers who may be affected is a good idea. Providing the federal government with greater leverage to extract private information from social media, email and other online services is decidedly not.

After all, Congress and the president have largely failed to take action protecting the privacy of law-abiding citizens in the wake of the massive National Security Administration data collection scandal revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013.

The governments of the United States and the United Kingdom have a responsibility to protect their citizens from terrorism — but not by spying on them indiscriminately or curtailing speech.