Five Eyes alliance calls for access to encrypted Facebook messages

The intelligence group warned terrorists and child abusers could abuse the system

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel gestures as she speaks during a visit to the West Midlands Police Learning & Development Centre in Birmingham, Britain July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool/File Photo
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End-to-end encryption by Facebook, WhatsApp and other social messaging services could undermine the fight against terrorism and child exploitation, the group of five leading intelligence powers has warned after a summit.

The so-called 'Five Eyes' alliance demanded tech firms to allow security agencies access to the encrypted data or risk putting the general public in harms way.

While the group, comprised of the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, conceded that protecting users personal and sensitive data was crucial they said this must not come at the expense of security.

The comments came after senior officials from the five countries met in London and held talks with tech companies. Facebook is set to roll out its encrypted, ‘secret’ messaging service in the near future.

“The Five Eyes are united that tech firms should not develop their systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk,” said newly appointed UK Home Secretary Priti Patel.

“Encryption presents a unique challenge. We must ensure that we do not stand by as advances in technology create spaces where criminal activity of the most heinous kind can go undetected and unpunished,” added the US Attorney General William Barr following the two-day conference.

But tech companies fear proposals that allow security agencies better access to encrypted data could pose serious risks to human rights, especially from authoritarian regimes. They also say encryption makes it harder for spies to pry and for criminals to get away with their misdeeds.

A recent co-signed letter by experts, civil society organisations and major companies warned that backdoors, such as those advocated by some intelligence communities, into communication systems could be abused. Signatories included Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook-owned messenger service WhatsApp.

The Five Eyes are an alliance of English-speaking countries that came together after the Second World War to share intelligence and techniques.

At this year’s annual gathering they held a roundtable with tech firms. A UK Home Office statement warned that security agencies ability to investigate and prosecute serious crimes would be “hampered” if end-to-end encryption was carried without necessary safeguards.

"Where systems are deliberately designed using end-to-end encryption, which prevents any form of access to content, no matter what crimes that may enable, we must act," Ms Patel said in a newspaper article.

The newly-appointed interior minister said it was not an “abstract debate” as she called on tech companies “to work with us urgently” on a remedy that keeps the public safe but respects privacy. Ms Patel referenced Facebook, which recently announced plans for encrypted messaging on its platform.

“This use of end-to-end encryption in this way has the potential to have serious consequences for the vital work which companies already undertake to identify and remove child abuse and terrorist content.

Mr Barr, the US Attorney General, recently courted controversy earlier this month when he said deploying encryption in “warrant-proof former jeopardises public safety more generally.”

"Adding a backdoor increases our collective security because it allows law enforcement to eavesdrop on the bad guys. But adding that backdoor also decreases our collective security because the bad guys can eavesdrop on everyone," Bruce Schneier, a privacy specialist at Harvard Law School, wrote in Lawfare.