Big Brother: European Union Moves to Ban Encryption on Messaging Apps Like WhatsApp

"Big Brother" mural, Belfast
Albert Bridge, Geograph

Internal documents from the European Union Council reveal that the bloc is seeking to ban end-to-end encryption on messaging services such as WhatsApp and Signal, following the recent Islamic terror attacks in France and Austria.

A draft Council of the European Union resolution on encryption, dated November 6th, said that while the EU considers encryption to be a useful tool for protecting the privacy of citizens, it has hindered law enforcement agencies ability to combat terrorism, organised crime, child sexual abuse, and other cybercrime.

Therefore the resolution called for the EU to mandate that messaging services that use end-to-end encryption to create backdoor keys for governments to be able to access private messages, destroying any semblance of privacy messaging apps provide.

The document, which was released by the Austrian public broadcaster Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF), said: “For competent authorities, access to electronic evidence is not only essential to conduct successful investigations and thereby bring criminals to justice, but also to protect victims and help ensure security.”

“Protecting the privacy and security of communications through encryption and at the same time upholding the possibility for competent authorities in the area of security and criminal justice to lawfully access relevant data for legitimate, clearly defined purposes in fighting serious and/or organised crimes and terrorism, including in the digital world, are extremely important. Any actions taken have to balance these interests carefully.”

The Austrian broadcaster pointed to the Islamic terror attack in Vienna last month as an impetus for the bloc seeking to remove the privacy protections. However, the broadcaster went on to note that Austria’s counterterrorism agency, the BVT, was warned by Slovakian intelligence about the threat posed by the terrorist, and therefore having a backdoor into the messaging services would have been a moot point.

Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, told the tech website IT Pro: “A European Union move to ban encryption from messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Signal would be a massive threat to data privacy as we know it. It is a disappointing change in approach from the EU which has previously been pro-privacy for European citizens.”

“Security experts understand that the EU government’s contention that ‘strong encryption technology’ can coexist with purposefully designed backdoors is contrary to the principles of robust cryptography,” Walsh said.

The privacy expert went on to warn: “Not only is breaking encryption is a threat to national security, but the ability to communicate privately is a vital part of any free society.”

The resolution is set to be presented to the Council of Permanent Representatives of the EU Member States (COREPER), where it can pass without any debate as it is already classified as an “I-item”. It is unclear, however, if the European Commission will take up the resolution, a necessary step before any resolution would become law.

The threat alone of dismantling privacy protections on messaging services has sparked a widespread backlash.

Lord Daniel Moylan pointed to the story as a justification for the United Kingdom leaving the EU, writing: “Thank God we got out. It would have been excruciating hearing Remainers defend this.”

The British anti-government surveillance campaign group Big Brother Watch warned: “Make no mistake: they are trying to ban the right to a private conversation.”

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here: @KurtZindulka

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