The intelligence agencies of the UK, US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand governments – known as the Five Eyes – have issued a joint statement calling on tech companies to allow access to encrypted data.
In the statement they claimed that the use of encryption posed a challenge to combating serious crimes and that the method of securely sharing information, found in messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp, was being used by child sex offenders, terrorists and organised crime groups.
They argued that in order to properly tackle these criminal activities law enforcement agencies should be able to lawfully access encrypted information and described the issue as a “pressing international concern” that “threatened to undermine” their justice systems.
They also warned that if tech companies and services did not comply, they could introduce legislation in order to achieve “lawful access”.
Tech companies have consistently opposed any proposals to build in so-called “backdoors” to allow access to encrypted data.
Speaking to NS Tech, Scarlet Kim, legal officer for Privacy International, described the move as a “terrible idea”. “It would undermine not only the privacy but also the security of millions of people,” she added.
“Encryption is pivotal to the digital communications infrastructure. We rely on it not only to maintain the confidentiality of data but also to authenticate communications in data and ensure its integrity.”
She argued that weakening encryption for a select few risks weakening it for everyone else.
“There’s no way to create an exceptional access system that’s going to allow the government to securely access content that they are seeking without having spill-over security implications for systems more broadly.”
Kim also called for the five governments to provide evidence of cases where an inability to access secure information has hindered their investigations
Governments have consistently called on technology companies to build in “backdoors” and the FBI director, Christopher Wray, claimed that encryption prevented their investigators from accessing nearly 7,000 devices.
Although Kim recognises that encrypted messaging services are used by criminals, there are many others who rely on secure communications including journalists who need to protect their sources, human rights activists and dissidents in countries where the state is trying to stifle dissent.
“Over the course of history there has always been a swathe of communications that have been inaccessible to the government and the people who benefit from that are a complex array of people that benefit in both good and bad ways.”
Alan Duric, co-founder of the secure messaging service Wire, raised similar concerns and said: “Backdoor access to encrypted messaging is nothing but a backward step in security.”