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Authoritarian Tech

New UK Home Secretary calls for backdoor into end-to-end encryption

Britain’s new Home Secretary, appointed when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and the third in the last three years, recently announced that encryption safeguards should be eliminated to allow access for law enforcement agencies.

End-to-end encryption means only the sender and recipient can read encrypted messages.

Priti Patel, widely considered to be a social conservative made her announcement in the Daily Telegraph, where she said end-to-end encryption should be broken and backdoor access inserted. She said Facebook’s plans to introduce end-to-end encryption on its messaging platform would ultimately benefit child abusers, criminals and terrorists.

She made her comments after a recent Five Eyes security summit where senior ministers from the Five Eyes partnership (the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S) met with tech firms to discuss security issues.

Patel said end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms like WhatsApp hinder police investigations. “Where systems are deliberately designed using end-to-end encryption, which prevents any form of access to content, no matter what crimes that may enable, we must act,” she wrote.

Graham King, an IT and internet lawyer in London who runs this blog, said while Patel’s comments added nothing new, they were delivered in the context of a wider conversation about end-to-end encryption. “However they take place against a background of more open discussion by the agencies of ways in which they might seek to gain lawful access to end-to-end encrypted messages at the end-points without preventing the use of end-to-end encryption as such (such as so-called ghost users).”

The debate over end-to-end encryption was first kicked off by a previous prime minister, David Cameron, in 2015. He argued that Britain’s intelligence agencies should possess legal powers to be able to break into the encrypted communications of suspected terrorists to avert a repeat of the kinds of public instances of terrorism seen in cities like Paris.

In 2017, Amber Rudd, who was Home Secretary at the time, also called for laws to build back doors into end-to-end encrypted messaging services as a means of tackling crime.

The issue has also come to the forefront across the Atlantic where it was reported recently that the U.S. government is exploring legislative options to prohibit tech companies from using forms of encryption that law enforcement can’t break.

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