“Five Eyes” call for backdoor access to end-to-end encryption to tackle ‘emerging threats’ despite warnings from cybersecurity and civil rights communities

4 min read

Yesterday the Guardian reported that the “Five Eyes” nations (UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) met in London on Tuesday. The representatives discussed plans to give spy agencies and police a backdoor access to encrypted social media messages on platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp in order to combat online child abuse and terrorism.

As per the Home Office, it is a two day meeting hosted by the the new UK Home Secretary, Priti Patel. The agenda for the meeting was to focus on the ‘Emerging threats’ and how best to address the opportunities and risks posed by the new technologies. Ministers attending the event included:

  1. Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton MP
  2. Canadian Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale MP
  3. Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen MP
  4. Canadian Associate Deputy Minister of Justice Francois Daigle
  5. New Zealand’s Minister of Justice Andrew Little MP
  6. New Zealand’s Attorney General David Parker MP
  7. US Attorney General William Barr
  8. US Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security David Pekokse

Ministers discussed challenges with end to end encryption

Ms Patel demanded that Facebook, along with Twitter and Google, allow access to hidden messages by intelligence agencies.

She said to the Daily Telegraph that, “The 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.”

“It will also hamper our own law enforcement agencies, and those of our allies, in their ability to identify and stop criminals abusing children, trafficking drugs, weapons and people, or terrorists plotting attacks.”

US Attorney General William Barr said in the meeting, “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.”

The security ministers of the five nations said in a statement that online child abuse material had increased twenty-fold in the past four years, to 18 million images found last year, according to the Guardian.

Controversial ‘Ghost Protocol’ proposed by UK intelligence agency

It was noted that, GCHQ, the UK agency which monitors and breaks into communications, has suggested that Silicon Valley companies could develop technology that would silently add a police officer or intelligence agent to conversations or group chats.

This seems to be a controversial so called “ghost protocol” which is opposed by companies, civil society organizations and by security experts too. In May, tech companies signed an open letter to the GCHQ, opposing the concept of a ghost protocol. The protocol involved plans for tech companies to allow law enforcement access to encrypted messages by including the government as a third-party that would secretly receive a copy of the messages without the other parties’ knowledge.

Dangers of ghost protocols

The reality of this will be that user’s privacy will be under assault on a variety of fronts. Companies crave access to personal information because it helps them target users with advertisements. Bad actors want access to private information for nefarious and criminal purposes.

And governments want the ability to know who you communicate with and what you say, presumably in order to better protect you. But it begs the question, of how much intrusion we are willing to accept in the name of national security. Because the dangers are innumerable. For example China’s social credit system, if you are officially designated as a “discredited individual,” or laolai in Mandarin, you are banned from spending on “luxuries,” whose definition includes air travel and fast trains.

This class of people, most of whom have defaulted on their debts, sit on a public database maintained by China’s Supreme Court. For them, daily life is a series of inflicted indignities some big, some small from not being able to rent a home in their own name, to being shunned by relatives and business associates, highlights the Inkstone report.

You can’t have a secure system that fully protects user privacy while also having a backdoor that lets the government in whenever it sees fit.

Community criticizes move saying backdoors to encryption renders it worthless

There was an immediate backlash to this news, Forbes reported. A backdoor is a vulnerability. And introducing weakness into end-to-end encryption renders that encryption worthless. On Reddit as well, users from Australia criticized this development, “It is not the purview of government to know what its’ citizens are talking about at all times.”

While on Hacker News, users discuss the challenges of spying the platforms in bulk, “In bulk, as opposed to targeted spying – you can send an agent to hide behind the bushes, or plant a microphone, or infiltrate a group. Which was possible for a long time before computers or electronics, but it’s not possible to do it at scale – you can spy on a few hundred people this way, but not on a few million.”

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.