A European police chief has spoken out against encryption, describing it as the “biggest problem” in tackling terrorism, the BBC reports.
Europol director Rob Wainwright said that the rise in use of secure messaging platforms that cannot be decrypted by law enforcement under any circumstances has “become perhaps the biggest problem for the police and the security service authorities in dealing with the threats from terrorism.”
In the wake of multiple revelations about the extent of government surveillance of citizens’ communications, there has been a surge in use of encrypted software that cannot be decrypted by companies or authorities if the user refuses to surrender their password. In particular, Google and Apple both promised to encrypt the data stored on Android and iOS devices by default (although Google has postponed implementation because the technical demands of encryption was crippling users’ phones).
This hardened stance from technology companies has infuriated authorities, who see encryption as a significant challenge to monitoring potential criminal and terrorist threats. Previously, a senior US cop has said that introducing encryption by default will make the iPhone “the phone of choice for the paedophile.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has also spoken out against the spread of encryption technology, apparently promising to outlaw it if he is re-elected in May 2015. “[Do] we want to allow a means of communication between two people which even in extemis with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally that we cannot read?” he asked. “My answer to that question is no, we must not.”
However, security experts have condemned such suggestions. Strong encryption tools are already widely available — they ensure online payments can be made securely, and journalists and activists use them to communicate with sources. It’s unlikely that many other tech companies would even comply with a ban, if passed into law — Apple CEO Tim Cook previously said that the company has “never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services… And we never will.”
Nonetheless, Wainwright is critical of companies like Apple. “We are disappointed by the position of these tech firms and it only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people hat are abusing the Internet.” He told the BBC he believes the increase in encryption is “because of a greater commercial imperative driven by what they perceive to be consumer demand for greater privacy of their communications.”
Wainwright adds that encryption has “changed the very nature of counter-terrorist work from one that has been traditionally reliant on having good monitoring capability of communications to one that essentially doesn’t provide one any more.”