US, UK, Japan and more countries want access to encrypted messages

The US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and Japan are calling on tech companies to make end-to-end encryption messages accessible to governments. The countries want to work together on ‘reasonable proposals’, whereby the privacy of users is guaranteed.

The seven countries have published a statement on ‘end-to-end encryption and public security’. It states that they are concerned about services that employ encryption, thereby ‘excluding all legal access to content’. The countries want it to be possible for governments to gain insight into encrypted communication if there is a legal basis for it. This must be able to be used, for example, to combat terrorism and child abuse.

The statement emphasizes that end-to-end encryption plays a vital role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property and trade secrets. The governments also recognize that encryption has an essential purpose in protecting, for example, journalists and human rights activists. According to governments, encryption is an essential part of ‘trust in the digital world’.

The governments are calling on technology companies to work together on ‘technically feasible solutions’. This should not only give governments access to encrypted data, but it should also enable tech companies to enforce their own conditions. The countries cite as an example the detection of images of child abuse. With automatic tools, Facebook discovers millions of such images in Messenger chats every year. If end-to-end encryption is introduced, those tools will stop working.

Enforcement authorities must be able to access encrypted content in a ‘readable and usable format’ if it has been lawfully authorized, according to the call. This should only occur if there is a need for it and its provision should be subject to strong safeguards and supervision.

In the statement, the countries emphasize that governments want to look for solutions that “guarantee the security of citizens, without undermining the privacy of users.” It is not yet known what this should look like in practice. The governments want to work with tech companies to investigate this.

The call comes from the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India and Japan. The first five countries are united in the so-called Five Eyes, an intelligence collaboration. Two years ago, that coalition also called for access to encrypted data.

With the call, the countries are targeting tech companies in general, without naming names. Governments are known to be concerned about Facebook’s proposed plans to provide end-to-end encryption for all communications within its apps. At the end of last year, the social network refused to include a backdoor for the US government. Facebook did say it would like to cooperate with law enforcement, provided that this is done in a legal manner, without jeopardizing the safety of other users.