Member nations of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance—which includes the United States— along with Japan and India published a statement on Sunday calling on tech companies to allow law enforcement to gain backdoor access to communication that uses unbreakable end-to-end encryption.
Representatives from seven nations including the U.S., U.K, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and Japan argued that end-to-end encryption poses “significant challenges to public safety”, including the safety of sexually exploited children.
“End-to-end encryption”—used by the likes of Apple and Facebook—scrambles messages by encrypting it on a sender’s device, which is then sent over the network in an unreadable format, before the message is finally decoded by the recipient’s device.
‘End-to-end encryption is designed to protect users’ privacy from hackers, government agencies and even the tech companies that run these platforms and services.
The countries are asking tech companies to build backdoors that would allow law enforcement to access content in a “readable and usable format with lawful, necessary and proportionate authorization,” and “strong safeguards and oversight.”
The countries have argued that end-to-end encryption in its current state undermines the companies’ own ability to identify and respond to child sexual abuse material, terrorist propaganda, and violent crime on their platforms.
Tech experts have previously slammed efforts to weaken end-to-end encryption arguing that adding a backdoor to the system amounts to breaking the whole system. Tech commentator John Gruber, previously wrote on his blog, “you can’t just ‘add a backdoor’ to a proper end-to-end encryption scheme. It’s the nature of the design not just that there are no backdoors but that there can be no backdoors. You can prove it, cryptographically, which is how you can trust it.” Alex Stamos, former chief security officer of Yahoo and Facebook, had previously likened the creation of an encryption back door to “drilling a hole in the windshield,” essentially cracking the structural integrity of the entire encryption shield.
In the U.S. end-to-end encryption has been a key sticking point between large tech companies and law enforcement. To counter this, three Republican senators in June introduced a bill that would force tech companies to offer a backdoor to end-to-end encrypted communication. The bill targeted companies that were “refusing to cooperate with law enforcement to help recover encrypted data, even when presented with a lawful warrant,” even though companies like Apple have always argued that they are incapable of doing so as they themselves don’t have access to data that uses this form of encryption. Last year, in a keynote speech, Attorney General William Barr pushed for access to an encryption backdoor, arguing that data security “should not come at the expense of making us more vulnerable in the real world.” Barr claimed that the net effect of unbreakable encryption “is to reduce the overall security of society.” The attorney general’s argument was immediately refuted on Twitter by former NSA director Michael Hayden. As big tech companies have come under the scanner for their handling of user’s personal data, many have tried to pivot to end-to-end encryption as a response. Last year Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his company would move all three of its messaging services — Instagram Messages, WhatsApp and Messenger — to end-to-end encryption, a move that has immediately received push back from multiple governments.