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US, allies seek access to encrypted apps

October 4, 2019

US, UK and Australian officials want Facebook to give authorities a way to read encrypted messages sent by ordinary users. Law enforcement has long sought access despite pushback from tech giants and privacy advocates.

Facebook logo (picture-alliance /N. Carson)
Image: picture alliance / empics

US Attorney General William Barr and his British and Australian counterparts are pressing Facebook to create a so-called backdoor to give authorities access to encrypted messages on WhatsApp and other messaging platforms.

Read more: Assessing WhatsApp's 5 years with Facebook

The request, set to be delivered in an open letter on Friday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, reignites a battle between tech companies and law enforcement over balancing the privacy of billions of users and fighting crime.

"Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes," they wrote.

Facebook's WhatsApp messaging service already has end-to-end encryption, meaning that even Facebook cannot read the text messages of the platform's 1.5 billion users. The California-based social media giant has announced plans to extend encryption to Messenger and Instagram Direct.

In their letter, Barr, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel and Australia Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton ask Facebook to give law enforcement a way to read WhatsApp messages during criminal investigations and to hold off on plans to extend encryption across messaging platforms. 

Facebook said Thursday that users have the right to have private conversations online and that companies are already able to respond to government requests when they receive valid legal requests.

"We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere," Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said in a statement.

The three governments argue encrypted messaging has given cover to terrorists, child predators and other criminals, something law enforcement has termed "going dark."

The issue came to the fore when the FBI sought to force Apple to help unlock the iPhone belonging to a perpetrator of a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people in 2015. Apple resisted and law enforcement ultimately unlocked the phone without the company's help.

Under the radar – encrypting your data

Encryption also protects journalists, whistleblowers, protesters and human rights activists speaking out against government abuses. Facebook says encryption also protects users from hackers, criminals and overreaching governments.

Read more: WhatsApp's security breach: Made in Israel, implemented worldwide

Access Now, an online privacy advocacy group, said in a statement that law enforcement agencies already have tools to uncover and pursue criminals.

"The reality is that encryption is an essential technology that strengthens the security of the internet's infrastructure and enables users to enjoy their civil and political rights and express themselves freely," said Guillermo Beltra, policy director at Access Now.

In announcing plans in March to expand encryption, Zuckerberg recognized that encryption extends to "the privacy of people doing bad things." But he said Facebook was working to improve its ability to identify and stop criminals through other means.

cw/cmk (AP, Reuters)

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