Tough encryption software used on mobile phones and in apps is the biggest challenge for security agencies tackling terrorism, according to Europol chief Rob Wainwright.
“It’s become the biggest problem for the police and the security service authorities in dealing with the threats of terrorism,” Wainwright told BBC Radio 5 Live Investigates on Sunday.
The drive by tech companies to use end-to-end encryption has accelerated since former NSA contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the intelligence agencies in the US and UK were ‘bulk monitoring’ the emails of innocent people.
Encryption - embraced by companies such as Apple or Google - is a technique that protects users’ communications by encoding messages that people send. However, hidden areas of the so-called dark internet, coupled with encryption, has made it harder to monitor terror suspects, Wainwright warned.
“It's changed the nature of counter-terrorist work from one that has been traditionally reliant on having good monitoring capability of communications to one that essentially doesn't provide that any more", he said.
“We are disappointed by the position taken by these tech firms and it only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people that are abusing the internet.”
Wainwright said terrorists were taking advantage of the “hidden internet” - also known as the deep web - and its databases and web sites that aren’t indexed by regular search engines like Google. This has allowed users to go online anonymously, away from the scrutiny of security services, and to take part in illicit activities.
A spokesman for TechUK, the UK’s technology trade association, told the programme that encryption is an essential component of the modern information age: “From huge volumes of financial transactions to personal details held on devices, the security of digital communications fundamentally underpins the UK economy.”
Wainwright also said the current legislative framework is “deficient” and should be reviewed to ensure security agencies are able to monitor online communications.
The Europol boss is not the only one to criticise encryption. James Comey, director of the FBI, attacked tech companies for embracing new models of encryption during a speech given in October last year.
Earlier this month, Google executive chairman Erick Schmidt said that tech firms will win ‘the encryption battle’. “We’ve taken a very tough line in the industry over this issue and I think we will win this one, at least in America,” Schmidt said during his speech to a Washington think-tank.