A fresh chapter ofthecrypto warslooks to be opening up in Europe, after the French and German interior ministers took to a podium yesterday to lobby for a law change that would enablecourts to demand that Internet companies decrypt data to help further criminal investigations.
So, in other words, to effectively push for end-to-end encryption to be outlawed. Yes we’vebeen here before ―many times.
Giving a joint press conference in Paris yesterday with German’sThomas de Maizière, France’s interior ministerBernard Cazeneuve called for the European Commission to change the law to afford security agencies the ability to access encrypted data.
They want their proposals discussed by the European Commission at a meeting next month.
The context here is that France and Germany have suffered a spate of terrorist attacks over the past year, including aco-ordinated attack in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130; aJuly 2016 attack in Nice where a truck driver ploughed into crowds celebrating Bastille Day; and a stabbing in a church in Northern France that killed an elderly priest.
A series ofknife attacks and a suicide bombing have also taken place in Germany over the same timeframe ― purportedly carried out by Islamist terrorists. Although the significanceof encrypted comms to carrying out any of these terror plots remains unclear.
The FT quotesPatrick Calvar, French homeland security chief, saying “gigabytes” of data wascollected after November’s mass shooting in Paris ― and thatit is “often encrypted, and impossible to decipher”. The paperalso notes that theIsis cell responsible for the Paris attack used WhatsApp and Telegram― two comms apps thatoffer end-to-end encryption. However the same Isis cell was also reported to have used unencrypted SMS in their comms.
Cazeneuve’s speech yesterday touched onvarious aspects of internal security, including calling for better border controls in Europe and improved information sharing between EU member states. But on encryption he framed the challenge forEurope’sdemocracies as a needto“armer” themselves against terrorist’s use of encryption witha legislative power toafford security agencies access tothe encrypted comms apps he said terrorists are using to communicate.
While referencingthe importance of encryption forlawful activity such as protecting financial transactions, Cazeneuve singled out certain commsappsthat make use ofend-to-end encryption as problematic for security services― name-checking the Telegram app specifically. (Although it’s worth noting that Telegramonly uses e2e encryption for a ‘secret chats’ feature; other messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, have rolled out e2e encryption as the default for all comms.)“What we are saying, however, is that exchanges more systematic operated via some applications, such as Telegram, must be able, as part of court proceedings ― and I stress this ― to be identified and used as evidence by the investigation and magistrates services,” said Cazeneuve [via Google Translate].
He noted that some Internet companies are co-operating with European security services thatrequestaccess to their user data but flagged Telegram as a company wherestate security agencies have “no contact”.
The two minister are callingfor theEC to legislate to enforce the same rights and obligations on operators of anytelecom or Internet service offered to users in Europe, regardless of whether they are headquartered in Europe.
And for a new obligation on operators deemed uncooperative ― i.e. when it comes to removing illegal content or decrypting messages for the security services on demand.
“If such legislation were passed, it would allow us, at European level, to impose obligations on operators that uncooperative disclose such to remove illegal content or decrypt messages, exclusively in the context of criminal investigations,” added Cazeneuve.The tug of war overend-to-end encryption
The call for decryption on demandechoes the political trajectory in the UK over the past few years, where the Conservative government has pushed to expandsurveillance legislation andcement legal powers to demand decryption via legal warrant.
The UK’s Investigatory Powers bill,nowprogressing throughthe parliament’s upper chamber, includes limits on the use of end-to-end encryption that could be used to require a company to remove encryption. Or even force a comms service providernot to useend-to-end encryption to securea future service they are developing.
Of course the basic point about end-to-end encryption is that the operator does not hold the encryption keys, so cannot decrypt data itself. But with politicians legislatingfor decryption on demand the legality ofe2e encryption becomesundermined ― and its usageimperiled.
And as myriad securityexperts, tech industry bodies and data protection advocates continue to point out, backdooredencryption inevitably entailssecurity risksfor all users ― not just for the suspects security agencies want to target. There is no ‘golden key’ just for the security agencies.
Expressing concern atthe latest Franco-German proposals, for example, the Europe director of theComputer & Communications Industry Association, Christian Borggreen, had this to say a statement:“We are worried that EU proposals can allow governments to challenge end-to-end encryption and thus threaten the security and confidentiality of Europeans’ communications.
“It is certainly understandable that some would respond to recent tragedies with backdoors and more government access. But weakened security ultimately leaves online systems more vulnerable to all types of attacks from terrorists to hackers. This should be a time to increase security ― not weaken it.”
Meanwhile, only last month the EU’s data protection supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, put out an official opinion on a review of the region’s ePrivacy directive ― next in line for updating, after the European parliament adoptedthe GDPRearlierthis year ― in which he specifically calls for end-to-end encryption to be safeguarded.
“The new rules should… clearly allow users to use end-to-end encryption (without ‘backdoors’) to protect their electronic communications,”Buttarelli writesin hisePrivacy opinion. “Decryption, reverse engineering or monitoring of communications protected by encryption should be prohibited.”The ePrivacy directive governs how companies handle customer data but currently only applies to telcos, not Internet companies such asWhatsApp ― aka the providers ofover-the-top