Seven international governments, including Australia and Japan, issued a statement on Sunday demanding that global technology companies allow law enforcement to bypass end-to-end encryption.
The encryption backdoor, proposed by Five Eyes, an intelligence alliance comprising of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US, would effectively nullify the security of end-to-end encryption, which prevents third-parties from accessing data that is transferred between two systems or devices.
Popular messaging apps such as Signal, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, and Whatsapp all utilise end-to-end encryption, and will undoubtedly be on high alert for potential legal actions that governments might now undertake to enforce their concerns.
In a joint press release published Sunday on the website of the US Department of Justice, the seven governments explained that the proposed changes would enable more effective enforcement and prevention of serious crimes, including child abuse, terrorism, and threats to national security.
Currently, end-to-end encryption prevents tech firms from reading the messages that are sent through their servers, making it difficult for them to prohibit illegal activity and enforce their own terms and conditions policies.
The statement further elaborated that the governmental actions taken against these “severe risks to public safety” would be “necessary and proportionate” and “subject to strong safeguards and oversight”.
However, the encryption backdoor raises serious concerns regarding the potential power governments could gain over political dissidents – even peaceful ones. If new technology laws are established, tech firms could be forced to hand over private chats and messages between protestors if governments claim that their political action is a threat to national security.
In a similar vein, Hong Kong’s national security law, passed at the end of June this year, allowed local police to demand online platform service providers hand over private information about users. Implemented after months of heated pro-democracy protests, the law was criticised as a significant threat to the city’s freedom of speech, press freedoms, and a deterrent to any criticism of the government. Companies, including Google, Zoom, Microsoft, and Telegram, all publically announced that they would refuse requests for user data from the Hong Kong government.
The debate surrounding how to best balance privacy and security has long been a controversial topic in the technology industry. The joint statement by the Five Eyes, Japan, and India stopped short of a legal threat to big players in the tech industry.
Last week, however, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an international non-profit digital rights group based in San Francisco, published an article exploring a series of leaked documents, which detail how governments in the European Union plan to present proposals for new anti-encryption laws to the European Parliament within the next year. The EFF characterised the EU’s ongoing push towards allowing governments to access encrypted data as “drastically invasive”.
In June, Australia’s spy agency chief Mike Burgess criticised technology companies such as Whatsapp for preventing law enforcement and national security agencies from accessing data protected by end-to-end encryption. In a podcast hosted by the Institute of Public Administration Australia, Burgess stated that while privacy is of great importance, “Privacy is not total because there’s a balance between privacy and security, and under the rule of law when appropriate warrants are in place, law enforcement or ASIO [Australian Security Intelligence Organisation] should be able to get access to something.”