Monday, September 23, 2019

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The new home secretary Priti Patel has joined forces with overseas allies to criticise end-to-end encryption technology and demand that tech companies “include mechanisms” in their products allowing authorities to obtain encrypted consumer data.

This week Patel hosted a two-day summit at which she met with home affairs, security and immigration ministers and attorney generals from the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance: Australia; New Zealand; Canada; and the US.

A key focus of the meeting was the perceived threat posed to public safety by the internet and encryption technology – which is a major feature of WhatsApp and other messaging services.

Patel said 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”.

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This view was supported by a joint communiqué issued following the meeting, in which the home secretary and her four direct counterparts effectively called on technology companies to install so-called backdoors in their kit allowing authorities to access encrypted data.

“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format,” the communiqué said. “Those companies should also embed the safety of their users in their system designs, enabling them to take action against illegal content. As part of this, companies and governments must work together to ensure that the implications of changes to their services are well understood and that those changes do not compromise public safety.”

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and the joint ministerial statement said that the Five Eyes nations “welcome approaches like (chief executive) Mark Zuckerberg’s public commitment to consulting governments on Facebook’s recent proposals to apply end-to-end encryption to its messaging services”.

“These engagements must be substantive and genuinely influence design decisions,” the statement added. “We share concerns raised internationally, inside and outside of government, about the impact these changes could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens, including children, from harm. More broadly, we call for detailed engagement between governments, tech companies, and other stakeholders to examine how proposals of this type can be implemented without negatively impacting user safety, while protecting cyber security and user privacy, including the privacy of victims.”

Patel is not the first home secretary to speak out against end-to-end encryption. During her time in the post, Amber Rudd expressed her belief that the technology is “helping criminals”, adding that wished to “find the best way to combat that”.

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