#cybersecurity | Justice Department takes another run at encryption backdoors with ‘lawful access’

Following in the footsteps of former FBI Director James Comey and other top law enforcement officials, Attorney General William Barr is taking a swing at the growing prevalence of encryption across the digital landscape, with a particular renewed focus on the rising number of communications apps that are offering end-to-end encryption. On Thursday, the Justice Department published an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking the social media giant not to proceed with its end-to-end encryption for its messaging services without providing law enforcement court-authorized access to the content of communications.

The letter, signed by the Attorney General, United Kingdom Home Secretary Priti Patel, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, came on the same day the U.S. and UK governments entered into the world’s first ever CLOUD Act Agreement. The agreement, according to the Justice Department, “will allow American and British law enforcement agencies, with appropriate authorization, to demand electronic data regarding serious crime.”

The Justice Department argues that current legal assistance between the two countries when it comes to gaining access to private electronic data can take up to two years, an interval that the new agreement hopes to shorten while also “protecting privacy and enhancing civil liberties.” The new US-UK Bilateral Data Access Agreement aims to “speed up investigations by removing legal barriers to timely and effective collection of electronic evidence” by allowing law enforcement, when armed with appropriate court authorization, to “go directly to tech companies based in the other country to access electronic data, rather than going through governments.”

Tech companies, including Facebook and digital rights advocates alike expressed alarm over these developments. Regarding the demand that Facebook forego its encryption effort, which was, ironically, sparked in part by government and consumer pressure on Facebook to better protect users’ privacy, digital rights and privacy group EFF said, “this is a staggering attempt to undermine the security and privacy of communications tools used by billions of people. Facebook should not comply.”

Facebook itself decried the governments’ latest moves to undercut encryption. “End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day,” the company said in a statement. “We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”

Coming in the front door

To give its renewed anti-encryption push more momentum, the Justice Department on Friday held what it called a Summit on Lawful Access, gathering state and federal law enforcement officials with experts on the distribution of child pornography to make the emotional, if not technological, case that tech companies should open up their encryption schemes to police investigating crimes. Kicking off the Summit, FBI Director Christopher Wray disputed the widely held opinion among cryptographers and cybersecurity specialists that building a backdoor into encrypted communications will weaken cybersecurity overall.

“I will tell you I get more than a little frustrated when people keep trying to suggest that we’re somehow trying to weaken encryption or weaken cybersecurity more broadly. We’re doing no such thing,” Wray said. “We also have no interest in any backdoor. The FBI and our state local law enforcement partners, we go through the front door with a warrant from a neutral judge only after we’ve met the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.”

Wray, like all of the speakers at the Summit, maintains that end-to-end encryption allows criminals to flourish under the anonymity that encryption provides. “I can tell you that police chief after police chief, sheriff after sheriff, our closest foreign partners and other key professionals are raising this issue with growing concern and urgency,” he said. “They keep telling us that their work is too often blocked by encryption schemes that don’t provide for lawful access. So, while we’re big believers in privacy and security, we also have a duty to protect the American people.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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