Socialist Spain Behind Push to Ban Private Messaging in EU, Leaked Docs Show

Pedro Sánchez Prime Minister of Spain talks at a press conference to the media after the
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Socialist Spain is leading the way in attempts to ban private messaging technology in the European Union, according to a leaked survey of member state opinions on encryption.

A leaked document from the European Council, originally obtained by the tech magazine Wired, which surveyed EU member states on the proposed law that would force messaging companies, like WhatsApp and Signal, to break their encryption and scan the content of private messages to supposedly stop the spread of child pornography.

The proposed legislation has been criticised by privacy rights campaigners as well as by tech experts, who say that it is not possible for encrypted messages to be ‘scanned’ by the providers as the very point of end-to-end messengers is that they are only visible to the parties involved, with even the provider itself being blocked from viewing the content. Therefore, the law would in reality force the companies to break their encrypted services.

Out of all countries surveyed, the socialist government of Spain was the most radical, calling for an outright ban of end-to-end encryption from the bloc altogether, saying: “Ideally, in our view, it would be desirable to legislatively prevent EU-based service providers from implementing end-to-end encryption.”

The Spanish representatives went on to say that it is “imperative that we have access to the data” and called for a way of messages to be decrypted to be put in place.

Commenting on the document, Riana Pfefferkorn of Stanford University’s Internet Observatory said: “It is shocking to me to see Spain state outright that there should be legislation prohibiting EU-based service providers from implementing end-to-end encryption.”

While law enforcement advocates have claimed that encryption assists criminals in evading the police, others have noted that should a ‘back door’ or a means of decrypting messages be put in place for police, hackers or governments could easily break into private messages for nefarious purposes, all but eliminating the ability to message privately.

Ella Jakubowska, a senior policy advisor at the European Digital Rights advocacy organisation, said that she was “unsurprised but nevertheless shocked” at the “really shallow understanding” of encryption technology displayed by the European officials in the document.

“They want to keep the security of encryption whilst being able to circumvent it… They want privacy but they also want to indiscriminately scan encrypted communications,” Jakubowska says.

Perhaps most concerning is the level of support for banning end-to-end encryption for messages, with 15 of the 20 countries surveyed by the EU Council expressing some level of support for the idea, such as Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, Romania, and Slovenia, while others came up with technically unfeasible solutions to the problem.

Ireland and Denmark, for example, expressed a desire for the ability of messages to be scanned for child pornography without eliminating encryption, something which is not technically possible. The Netherlands, meanwhile called for the ability to scan people’s phones for child sex material before the message was sent so as to leave encryption intact, but raising the prospect of blanket police monitoring of people’s personal devices.

“There are … technologies which may allow for automatic detection of CSAM (Child sexual abuse material) while at the same time leaving end-to-end encryption intact,” the Dutch representatives said.

Although the UK is no longer a part of the European Union, the so-called Conservative government in London has also been pushing legislation that would eliminate the privacy protections of encryption to such a degree that WhatsApp has even threatened to leave the market altogether over the draconian demands.

Follow Kurt Zindulka on Twitter here @KurtZindulka


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