New backdoor laws for encrypted apps? Europe eyes options but expects a fight

Europe's legislators are trying to decide whether to propose new laws that would compel internet companies to help police access encrypted data.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

The EU says it will set out its options for getting a "swift, reliable response" from companies such as Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which offer end-to-end encryption.

Image: iStock

The encryption debate is about to heat up again in Europe, with EU justice commissioner Věra Jourová revealing that she's under pressure from European national interior ministers to do something about the problems law-enforcement agencies have accessing encrypted data and communications.

She says she will announce "three or four options" to help law enforcement get a "swift, reliable response" from companies such as Facebook-owned WhatsApp that offer end-to-end encryption.

According to Euractiv, these options will include legislation that would force companies to cooperate with law-enforcement requests, and softer but possibly more expedient voluntary agreements with internet companies.

WhatsApp's encryption came into focus again after London's terror attack last week. UK home secretary Amber Rudd said encrypted services such as WhatsApp offered terrorists a secret place to communicate. It was reported that the London attacker had used WhatsApp moments before his rampage.

The messaging service was also recently suspended in Brazil over an access dispute in a criminal investigation.

Similar calls to mandate law-enforcement backdoors in software have been heard numerous times in the US and Europe following terrorist attacks, including in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in 2015, and Apple's public fight with the FBI over access to stored data on the San Bernardino shooter's password-protected iPhone.

So far, calls for mandated backdoors have been met with strong opposition from tech giants, technologists, security experts, and privacy advocates.

Opponents argue that it's impossible to create an exclusive backdoor for law enforcement; break it for one, and it's broken for all, meaning the same backdoor for law enforcement could be abused by criminal hackers or governments.

On the other hand, law-enforcement agencies lost access to communications that was once available through regulated telecoms operators.

"At the moment, prosecutors, judges, also police and law-enforcement authorities, are dependent on whether or not providers will voluntarily provide the access and the evidence. This is not the way we can facilitate and ensure the security of Europeans, being dependent on some voluntary action," Jourová said, according to Euractiv.

Jourová is expecting delays with legislation that mandates encryption backdoors. That difficulty is not surprising given the high value Europe places on privacy rights. So the EU would look to non-legislative measures to find a quicker way to satisfy demands by law enforcement, she said.

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