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26th May 2019

EU seeks to decrypt messages in new anti-terror plan

  • The EU commission is offering €500,000 to train police on getting access to encrypted information. (Photo: Daniele Zanni)

The European commission is seeking to give police greater powers to decrypt private messages as part of a wider proposal to crackdown on criminals and terrorists.

Julian King, the EU commissioner for security, told reporters on Wednesday (18 October) the plans include legal, financial, and technical measures to pry open encrypted messages.

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"We believe there is more that we can do to support law enforcement and judicial authorities when they encounter encryption," he said.

The plan involves giving the EU police agency, Europol, 86 additional staff to further develop its decryption capability.

It demands national authorities create a network of encryption experts, a "tool box of alternative investigation techniques", and a €500,000 training programme to train police.

All are aimed, within the next 16 months, at obtaining encrypted information from a seized smartphone or a computer.

Encryption is a touchy subject given demands by some governments, including the EU's own counter-terrorism coordinator, to introduce "back doors" or force operators like WhatsApp or Telegram and Messenger to hand over encryption keys to the police.

Vulnerable backdoors

Last year, a French version of French-German joint statement on counter-terrorism had called for a ban on unbreakable encryption.

In March, the UK's home secretary Amber Rudd demanded a push for enhanced access to encrypted communication tools.

But King insisted on his opposition to "backdoors", noting that such gaps would "weaken the overall security of our cyber space."

Such a view was broadly echoed in a report out on Wednesday by the Civil Liberties Union for Europe, an NGO, which noted that backdoors could be easily exploited by hackers.

Earlier this week, researchers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia uncovered serious flaws in government and corporate encryption cards, first revealed by ArsTechnica.

The Estonian government, which prides itself as a digital savvy nation, had in late August warned that some 750,000 digital identity cards are vulnerable to hackers because of the flaw.

Furthermore, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe notes that it "is far from clear that encryption is a key tool through which terrorists avoid detection."

People behind the 2015 Paris terrorists shootings had used non-encrypted mobile phones and were already known to the police, it noted.

Police also knew, before the attacks, the people involved in the 2004 Madrid train bombings, the 2005 London bombings, the 2016 twin blasts in Brussels, as well as the 2017 Manchester and London Bridge attacks.

The lack of police follow through in the lead up to some of those attacks points to a lack of resources to sift through the mountains of often useless data that has been collected.

One study found that some 97 percent of calls, messages, and data collected by a UK surveillance programme had never viewed or simply ignored by authorities, reported The Intercept.

But the EU is pressing ahead on collecting even more data, and is now pushing to open up talks with pariah governments in Egypt and Turkey to share and transfer personal data of suspected terrorists with their respective police forces.

Public spaces

Egypt was last month accused of crimes against humanity for widespread torture of dissidents. Turkey is jailing journalists and human rights activists for their links to an alleged so-called armed terrorist group.

"I am not predicting the outcome of these agreements yet. I do hope it is possible to make progress," noted King.

The EU commission is also set to propose early next year a set of rules on electronic evidence that could allow police direct access to information stored in the cloud.

Meanwhile, King announced some €18.5 million in EU security funds until the end of year to finance projects to protect public spaces from terrorist attacks.

Another €100 from regional funding will be set aside for the same effort for next year.

The idea is "to make public spaces less vulnerable without completely changing their nature," he said.

EU intelligence agency not a priority

Julian King, the EU commissioner for security, says talk of an EU intelligence agency would be a distraction from more pressing coounter-terrorism work.

Rushed US Cloud Act triggers EU backlash

EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova wants to secure compatible rules with the US when it comes to granting police access to people's personal data stored in other countries. But governance issues may complicate those efforts.

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