The Council of the European Union has prepared a proposal that obliges operators of communication applications such as WhatsApp to provide intelligence services with access to encrypted communication. The measure should help to prevent terrorist attacks such as the ones in Vienna and France. The United States and Great Britain plan similar steps, according to Czech news portal Idnes.cz.
WhatsApp, Signal, and other mobile communication applications use the so-called end-to-end-E2E technique to ensure user privacy. That way, a message sent from a single device can be only decrypted using the platform-specific encryption key by the end-user receiving the message.
According to the Austrian radio station FM4, the Council of the European Union has prepared a proposal according to which operators of mobile communication platforms should create additional master keys that would allow European intelligence services to break encrypted communication in justified cases. The information is based on a leaked internal document sent by Germany, which currently holds the helm of the EU presidency, to delegations to Council member states.
Competent authorities must have access to data “in full respect of fundamental rights and the data protection regime” and in “maintaining cybersecurity”, according to the Associated Press in a document that is also available. “Technical solutions for gaining access to encrypted data must comply with the principles of legality, transparency, necessity, and proportionality”.
The proposal can also be seen as another step against terrorism that French President Emmanuel Macron wants to discuss with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz during a video conference scheduled for this week. The two countries are now working closely together on counter-terrorism measures. Macron is pushing for tighter action against Islamist radicalism in the wake of jihadist attacks in France.
Some German politicians opposed the proposal, according to the AP agency. Bundestag member Anke Domscheit-Berg of the Left has accused European governments of using fears of recent extremist attacks to put in place risky, unacceptable, and dangerous surveillance measures.
According to Patrick Breyer, a representative of the German Pirate Party in the European Parliament, allowing governments to enter encrypted communications “can open the back door for hackers, foreign intelligence, and the like.”
The requirement for “backdoors” in encrypted communication applications has previously been proposed by members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance. Representatives of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have warned technology giants that encryption technology is a barrier for security forces.
“We urge the technology industry to address our serious concerns about using encryption in such a way that it completely excludes any legal access to content,” the US Department of Justice said last month. India and Japan, which are not members of the Five Eyes, also signed the proposal.
Five Eyes also justify the requirement for access to private communication by protecting “highly vulnerable members of our communication, such as sexually abused children.” The European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, argued similarly, setting up a special group to come up with technical solutions to “detect and report encrypted child sexual abuse material”.
Title image: FILE – In this Nov. 15, 2018, file photo the icons of Facebook and WhatsApp are pictured on an iPhone in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Facebook has sued the Israeli hacker-for-hire company NSO Group for allegedly targeting some 1,400 users of its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp with highly sophisticated spyware. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)