Mark Scott is chief technology correspondent at POLITICO.
Just in time for the holiday season, European and American officials are putting aside their differences over tech.
What’s fueling this festive bonhomie is growing transatlantic pressure on Big Tech to loosen its grip on encryption — technology that makes it almost impossible for anyone, including law enforcement, to read messages or documents held on people’s smartphones or other digital devices.
Officials in Brussels, Washington and other capitals are flexing their muscles. They’re warning companies like Facebook and Apple that if they don’t allow government agencies to access this material — especially when it comes to law enforcement investigations — they’ll introduce a slew of new laws that will force firms to do just that.
In recent months, the drumbeat for action has been growing louder.
Lawmakers cite failures by authorities to get their hands on data connected to high-profile crimes like child exploitation as evidence that tech companies are dragging their heels.
U.S., British and Australia officials published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, calling on him call off plans to encrypt the company’s messaging service. U.S. senators railed on Big Tech in early December, threatening to pass legislation that would strong-arm companies into giving access to encrypted information under a court order.
Some European Union governments are mulling a revisit of so-called data retention rules, requirements that telecom providers keep hold of people’s online messages for a set period of time in case law enforcement agencies need to access them.
And senior American and European officials, including William Barr, the U.S. attorney general, and Didier Reynders, the newly appointed European Commissioner for Justice, recently met in Washington to figure out how to crack the encryption problem.
Here’s some advice: This Christmas, be careful what you wish for.
For years, Western officials have, unsuccessfully, demanded so-called backdoors to encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram in order to allow law enforcement to keep tabs on potential terrorist activity and gather evidence in criminal cases.
Lawmakers cite failures by authorities to get their hands on data connected to high-profile crimes like child exploitation as evidence that tech companies are dragging their heels. Noting that traditional telecoms operators routinely hand over information on their subscribers, under a court order, officials complain that Big Tech wants to play by different rules.
Silicon Valley (along with privacy and freedom of expression advocates) has cried foul.
Big Tech firms argue that encryption does more good than harm by protecting vulnerable groups from having their data misused and warn that harmful actors, including authoritarian governments, would inevitably get their hands on backdoors.
Tech executives also say they already provide law enforcement with reams of information (though not encrypted data) when it comes through the right legal channels.
In a recent open letter, more than 100 civil society groups said weakening encryption would put the security and privacy of billions of people at risk. They called on Washington, London and Canberra to back down from efforts to water down the technology.
It’s a sign of how important politicians are taking encryption that transatlantic tensions over tech have been put aside to present a united front on the issue.
Several Western national security officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged to POLITICO that the creation of digital backdoors could affect companies’ ability to keep users’ information safe.
But they also argued that tech firms were overplaying the danger. In particular, officials said compromises — including the ability to decrypt the contents of devices, and not necessarily online messages — could give law enforcement access to life-saving information without putting the wider population at risk because any decryption efforts would be limited to specific smartphones, and would not involve bulk collection of people’s online conversations.
It’s a sign of how important politicians are taking encryption that transatlantic tensions over tech — including ongoing EU-U.S. spats over digital tax, competition policy and online privacy — have been put aside to present a united front on the issue. The latest move: U.K. officials giving evidence to the U.S. Congress last week on why existing encryption standards were flawed.
The push comes at a time when public sympathy for Big Tech is at an all-time low, and companies like Facebook and Apple find themselves in the unenviable position of protecting would-be criminals in high-profile cases that involve law enforcement trying to break into people’s devices or messages in search of evidence.
But if encryption is compromised, it’ll be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
The battle pits governments’ responsibility to keep people safe from harm against fundamental rights like the freedom of expression (and, at least in Europe, the right to privacy).
No one is saying that law enforcement should be hamstrung in their fight against online criminals.
Many of the officials who are calling on Big Tech to create digital backdoors are the same ones who have accused tech firms of not doing enough to protect online privacy. It’s hard to claim that you’re an advocate for tough privacy rules while also demanding access to people’s digital messages.
Existing national efforts, including the U.K.’s Investigatory Powers Act — which already includes provisions that call on companies to remove encryption if ordered to do so — have remained mothballed despite growing clamor by politicians to weaken global encryption.
And in Australia, the Western country that has gone the farthest with its domestic data retention rules, the government is routinely criticized for using those rules to access data held by journalists — a direct threat to freedom of expression and other civil liberties.
No one is saying that law enforcement should be hamstrung in their fight against online criminals. But when those efforts would likely harm the wider public’s fundamental rights, policymakers should move carefully.
In their push for backdoors, they risk undermining the inalienable freedoms at the heart of Western society.
Digital Politics is a column about the global intersection of technology and the world of politics.
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