The members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, along with India and Japan, have urged tech firms to review their encryption practices, over concerns that unbreakable encryption could become a handy tool for terrorists and child traffickers, posing risks to thousands of innocent lives.
On Sunday, representatives from seven countries (Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, the USA, India and Japan) published a joint statement, calling on tech firms to work with governments to find solutions to ensure citizens' safety.
The group demanded companies add "backdoors" in their encrypted apps to provide law enforcement agencies access to encrypted communications, which the countries say they need to monitor online criminality.
Messaging apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and others use end-to-end encryption, meaning that a message can only be decoded by the sender or the recipient. Encryption/decryption of messages is done on the device itself, rather than by the service provider.
The new statement, the alliance's latest effort to get tech giants to agree to encryption backdoors, argues that official oversight of messaging and social media platforms is becoming impossible due to the growing number of end-to-end encrypted apps.
The alliance stressed that there must be a legal way for government agencies to receive encrypted private messages from tech firms.
The statement specifically urged Facebook to change the encryption technology on its WhatsApp and Messenger apps.
"In 2018, Facebook Messenger was responsible for nearly 12 million of the 18.4 million worldwide reports of CSAM (child sexual abuse material) to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children," it said.
"These reports risk disappearing if end-to-end encryption is implemented by default, since current tools used to detect CSAM do not work in end-to-end encrypted environments."
While the signatories acknowledged that encryption is vital to protect people's privacy, they also added that unbreakable encryption should not come at the expense of public safety.
The Five Eyes alliance made similar calls to tech firms in 2018 and 2019. Despite those arguments, companies like Facebook and Apple have repeatedly rejected such proposals, warning that backdoors could make their apps prone to attacks from cybercriminals or foreign governments.
Last year, an alliance of technology companies, including Google, Apple, WhatsApp and Microsoft, signed an open letter criticising GCHQ's proposal that tech firms should develop the technology to secretly add an intelligence agent to private conversations or group chats, to avoid forcing companies to break their own encryption.
In 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook vowed to fight the US government over an iPhone security backdoor order. Cook wrote an open letter to explain Apple's opposition to the order, which was given to enable US law enforcement agencies to access data on a seized device.
Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which advocates for privacy on the internet, said that a series of leaked documents indicate that the EU is considering a plan to introduce anti-encryption laws within the year: a reversal from the traditionally pro-privacy bloc.
It would be "a drastically invasive step," the EFF said.
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