Social media firms should give police and spies a “backdoor” into private messages to help them prevent and online child abuse, security chiefs from around the world have said.
WhatsApp, iMessage and other popular services are so well encrypted even the tech firms can’t read customers’ messages.
It follows a meeting of security chiefs in London today, hosted by new Home Secretary Priti Patel, which called for tech giants including Facebook and Apple to allow Governments to obtain “readable” messages from their customers.
The group also discussed the row over whether to allow Chinese firm Huawei to provide equipment to power Britain’s 5G networks.
The US has already banned Huawei from providing kit for their 5G rollout, over fears their close links to the Chinese government could pose a security risk.
While not mentioning Huawei by name, the group discussed the risks of “unauthorised access or interference” in new 5G networks, including by “foreign governments.”
The group agreed to perform an “evidence-based risk assessment” on the issue.
The meeting of security ministers from the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance is Ms Patel’s first major act as Boris Johnson ’s Home Secretary.
The Five Eyes, which includes Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – evolved from a secret World War Two alliance between British and U.S. code breakers.
Ms Patel said: “The Five Eyes are united that tech firms should not develop their systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk.
“We heard today about the devastating and lifelong impact of child sexual exploitation and abuse and agreed firm commitments to collaborate to get ahead of the threat.
“As Governments, protecting our citizens is our top priority, which is why through the unique and binding partnership of Five Eyes we will tackle these emerging threats together.”
Donald Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, was among those attending the talks.
He added: “Encryption presents a unique challenge. We must ensure that we do not stand by as advances in technology create spaces where criminal activity of the most heinous kind can go undetected and unpunished.
“Indeed, making our virtual world more secure should not come at the expense of making us more vulnerable in the real world. We are grateful for the leadership of Home Secretary Patel in facilitating these critical discussions and shared commitment to safety for all.”
End-to-end encryption means messages can only be decoded by the sender or recipient.
They use a publicly available algorithm to scramble and unscramble the message on the phone itself, rather than the encryption being done by the service provider.
The upshot of this is that Apple, WhatsApp, Telegram and other services that use the technology could not decrypt messages sent through their services if they wanted to.
Allowing a back door into end-to-end encryption wouldn’t just make it less secure for terrorists – it’d make loads of things you do online every day more vulnerable to attacks from hackers.
This kind of security is not only used by messaging services. It’s used, entirely legitimately, by banks, card companies and healthcare providers to protect users from hackers.