whatsapp phone

Home Secretary Patel claims end-to-end encryption helps ‘empower criminals’

End-to-end encrypted messaging platforms like Whatsapp should have backdoors so that governments can more easily tackle terrorism and child abuse, Britain’s Home Secretary has said.

Priti Patel made the comments at a meeting of the Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. She said that tech firms should not “empower criminals” with their products.

“We are concerned where companies deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes,” the Five Eyes group said in a statement following the conference.

“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format.”

In addition to the widely used WhatsApp and Telegram apps, Facebook is considering using end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct. The technology precludes anyone but the message sender and receiver from accessing its contents.

Patel said: “The Five Eyes are united that tech firms should not develop their systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk.

“As governments, protecting our citizens is our top priority, which is why through the unique and binding partnership of Five Eyes we will tackle these emerging threats together.”

US attorney general William Barr said: “Throughout this week, we have had substantive, frank and positive discussions surrounding our shared duty to protect public safety, including those related to the internet.

“Encryption presents a unique challenge. We must ensure that we do not stand by as advances in technology create spaces where criminal activity of the most heinous kind can go undetected and unpunished.

“Indeed, making our virtual world more secure should not come at the expense of making us more vulnerable in the real world.”

The Home Office said that the tech industry, which took part in a roundtable with ministers, agreed to collaborate with the Five Eyes on a set of voluntary principles, which will be drawn up by the end of the September, on steps to combat child sex abuse, including the growing threat of livestreaming.

Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd attracted criticism in 2017 when she said that “real people” do not need end-to-end encryption. 

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