Why is the race to decrypt getting more competitive in the EU?

15 Sep 2016

In the UK, the snooper’s charter is trundling along. In Germany, a spike in funding for surveillance has been proposed. In France, calls are growing for ‘decrypt’ laws. Why?

UK Prime Minister Theresa May came to power on the back of a politically turbulent EU referendum, rising up the ranks of the Conservative party at just the right time.


Eye spy

Future Human

But May’s name first came to prominence towards the end of a lengthy campaign to get the Investigatory Powers bill – known as the Snooper’s Charter – off the ground.

In that bill, additional, expansive powers and tools were proposed for UK authorities to monitor and access citizens’ web records, potentially intercepting and even hacking smartphones under warrants not issued by courts, but by ministers.

Despite growing, vocal concerns from critics of the proposal, global events tended to encourage its passage through the UK parliament. Then in June, amid mass Brexit hysteria, the bill was given overwhelming approval by MPs – 444 in favour, 69 against.

Meanwhile, in Germany, intelligence agencies are looking for major budget increases this year. A leaked report claims that there is a request for an 18pc rise in funding for the BND (the German equivalent of the NSA or GCHQ).

Though information is scant, some are already suggesting the majority of this funding increase would go towards mass surveillance, decrypting ‘non-standardised telecommunications’ like WhatsApp and Viber.

DW states that the leaked budget plan reads, “Encryption means that of the more than 70 available communication services … only less than ten can be gathered and the content read.”

Last month, the German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, stood on a podium with his French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, calling for a change to EU law.

Decryption please

Proposing an allowance for security agencies to decrypt data sent via non-standardised telecommunications, de Mazière and Cazeneuve claimed this would arm EU states against the rising spate of terror attacks.

Reports following some of the recent infamous attacks in Europe, however, claim that terrorists are using un-encrypted SMS.

This multi-pronged pursuit of greater access to larger mounds of communications has been criticised by data privacy activists, with some pointing to the fruitless results they suggest would be garnered should all these proposals come to pass.

“If encrypted communications technology, used by masses – such as WhatsApp or Telegram – are decrypted to give a backdoor access to the government, the same backdoor can be used by other unlawful entities, such as hackers or criminals,” said NordVPN, a provider of virtual private networks that help users dodge such behaviour.

“Only one attack is enough to harm millions, and can lead to identity theft, financial losses, spying and so on. The open gap would also be susceptible to system malfunctions, where everyone’s data can get compromised,” the company said.

UN says no

David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, largely agrees.

Last year, Kaye said that, given the contemporary technological environment, intentionally compromising encryption, “even for arguably legitimate purposes”, weakens everyone’s security online.

“Given its widespread and indiscriminate impact, back-door access would affect, disproportionately, all online users,” he said.

The logical argument seems to be in support of encryption, though the political argument is at odds with that.

With each passing terror attack, calls for state powers to hack everything and anything will grow, but the reality shows no signs of shifting.

Which leads back to the question we posed at the start. Why?

 Encryption image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic