WhatsApp encryption

UK and allies reiterate demands for encryption backdoors

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The 'Five Eyes' alliance, plus India and Japan, have published a shared statement calling for tech companies to introduce encryption backdoors to allow snooping by law enforcement where “necessary and proportionate”.

Many governments have been pressuring tech companies to compromise on e2e encryption, arguing that it undermines efforts to fight child exploitation, terrorism and other criminal activities by law enforcement, security services and the tech companies themselves.

For example, the nature of e2e encryption means that Facebook employees do not have access to encryption keys and therefore cannot read the content of WhatsApp messages. Last year, Facebook announced that it would work towards applying e2e encryption by default across its platforms.

This latest statement has reiterated these arguments and called on tech companies to allow law enforcement access to encrypted content “in a readable and useable format”, where it is “necessary and proportionate”, and to work with governments to facilitate this. The statement called for cooperation regarding messaging apps, encrypted devices, custom encrypted apps, and encryption across integrated platforms.

“There is increasing consensus across governments and international institutions that action must be taken: while encryption is vital and privacy and cyber security must be protected, that should not come at the expense of wholly precluding law enforcement, and the tech industry itself, from being able to act against the most serious illegal content and activity online,” the statement said.

This level of access would require the establishment of vulnerabilities (backdoors), which governments argue say be intended for their use alone and only in strictly limited circumstances. Privacy advocates, however, argue that this will inevitably compromise everyone’s privacy.

“We owe it to all of our citizens, especially our children, to ensure their safety by continuing to unmask sexual predators and terrorists operating online,” said Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary. “It is essential that tech companies do not turn a blind eye to this problem and hamper their, as well as law enforcement’s, ability to tackle these sickening criminal acts.

“Our countries urge all tech companies to work with us to find a solution that puts the public’s safety first.”

The statement was signed by representatives of the Five Eyes (UK, US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand), plus India and Japan. The Five Eyes alliance has made almost identical calls to tech companies in 2018 and 2019. Efforts to force the introduction of backdoors by law, such as with Australia’s Assistance and Access Bill, have met with limited success.

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