New proposed EU legislation at odds with Theresa May’s desire to force tech firms to provide authorities with backdoors into messaging apps
The Tories have made no secret about wanting authorities to be able to force firms like WhatsApp and Telegram to decrypt messages in order to prevent extremism. However, the proposal has faced a backlash from tech firms concerned about what it would mean for people’s privacy. And now the government has hit another snag as MEPs have mooted new legislation backing end-to-end encryption.
The European parliament's committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs has proposed new regulation aimed at providing increased protection for people’s online privacy by amending article 7 of the EU's charter of fundamental rights. To this end, MEPs proposed that tech firms should provide users with “sufficient protection in place against unauthorised access” and that decryption of private encrypted messages should be made illegal. Additionally, the draft suggests that no state should be able to “impose any obligations on electronic communications service providers that would result in the weakening of the security and encryption of their networks and services.” Before being passed into law, the proposal will require approval from both the European parliament and the European council. Given that this lengthy legislative process may extend beyond the Brexit negotiations, it’s unclear how this proposed law, if accepted, will affect Britain.
The proposal comes after online privacy featured heavily during the snap election. Following the terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge, the Conservative party pledged to enable authorities to force tech firms to decrypt private conversations to prevent further attacks. However, the suggestion that companies like Facebook and Apple should install a backdoor into their services was met with criticism from tech experts. They warned that such measures would weaken innocent people’s protection and simply push extremists to take their conversations elsewhere.
Of course, this is not a new debate. The argument on whether or not tech firms should provide authorities with a backdoor has been in the limelight since before then home secretary Theresa May proposed the Investigatory Powers Bill back in 2015. The act, often referred to as the snoopers’ charter, did initially propose that social media companies provide authorities with encryption keys, similarly to the government’s new suggestions. However, this was later removed from the final bill after tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple expressed concerns about how this would affect their users’ privacy and security. In the version passed by the House of Commons in June last year, tech firms only have to remove encryption codes if a government requests it, doing so is "technically feasible" and not too expensive.
But with the prime minister having pushed vigorously for weaker encryption during the campaign, it’s safe to say that we haven’t heard the last word on this issue.