The international intelligence alliance “Five Eyes” has renewed its efforts to gain access to encrypted content. The latest proposal, which is also supported by Japan and India, could significantly undermine the protection of users of Whatsapp and other services.

Although privacy on the Internet needs to be protected, it should not cause the security authorities and the technology companies themselves to have no access to “the most serious illegal online content and activities,” according to “Five Eyes” in a joint statement.

Why is This Issue Important?

The European Commission recently ceased the latest attempt to weaken end-to-end encryptions, meaning content that can only be viewed by the respective users in a conversation or interaction, by deleting related projects from its draft of the “Digital Services Act”. However, the topic remains relevant internationally.

In recent years numerous online platforms and many messengers services added the user protection of end-to-end encryption. Now the “Five Eyes” alliance has launched another attempt in its efforts. “Five Eyes” is the intelligence community cooperation between the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. With Japan and India’s support, “Five Eyes” are now calling for the tech companies to build back doors into their protective mechanism.

Five Eyes: End-to-End Encryption Hinders Vital Investigations

According to “Five Eyes,” encryption is a massive obstacle in investigative work. It also makes it impossible for the providers themselves to enforce their own guidelines effectively. Government officials expressed their proclivity to work with the companies concerned to “develop appropriate proposals” that would allow technology companies and governments to protect citizens and their privacy, guarantee cybersecurity and human rights while supporting technological innovations.

The bottom line for “Five Eyes” is that end-to-end encryption should not prevent cyber-crime from being combated effectively. Certain implementations of technology would make the platforms a “safe haven” for criminal activity and put “highly vulnerable members of society at risk according to their statement.

What Does Five Eyes Want?

A joint statement calls for the providers to consider public safety “by design” in their services. Authorities ought to be provided access to platform content in a “readable and usable format” if there is a “legal authorization” – such as a court order. Moreover, tech companies ought to enter into an exchange with the authorities and other stakeholders to advise on such access solutions. The latter aims to establish a consensus that allows the authorities to access content under extraordinary circumstances, while users can still communicate securely and encrypted. The Five Eyes alliance publicly postulated similar demands in 2018 and 2019.

Whether such a solution is technically conceivable remains a significant debate among the relevant actors. Secure end-to-end encryption is usually implemented so that the operators themselves do not have the keys to read user content. If they provide the authorities access, this design is not possible, as they must have this key to allow investigators to read along or make certain content legible on their behalf.

Loss of Privacy Has More Implications Than Surveillance Oversight

The storage of this key and the implementation of other back doors means a loss of security for all users per se. Because if cyber criminals succeed in attacking a provider’s server or tracking down such a back door, they can also see the communication between users. Such a door would also be open to the misuse of keys by employees of tech companies.

Some countries have already implemented the elimination of encryption into law, for example, in Australia. In Russia, the authorities are also heavily targeting encrypted messengers and trying to ban the Telegram service, but have largely failed at a technical level.

Finding a balance between consumer privacy concerns on the one hand and crime and terrorist prevention on the other will continue to spark debate and a coherent solution that satisfies both sides remains – for now – almost inconceivable.

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