OTI to “Five Eyes” Countries Meeting Today: Undermining Encryption Won’t Make Us Safer

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Today and tomorrow, the Attorneys General of the five countries that make up the global intelligence surveillance partnership called “The Five Eyes” will be meeting in Ottawa, Canada. One issue that will be on the agenda, at the insistence of Australia’s Prime Minister, is how the five countries in the partnership—the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and Canada—might work together to undermine encrypted messaging technology such as Whatsapp and Signal in the name of anti-terrorism.  New America’s Open Technology Institute calls on these leaders to take the advice of security experts, veteran national security officials, and their own legislative bodies, and reject any plans to require that companies stop deploying unbreakable encryption or insert surveillance backdoors into the technology.

“In attacking the technology used every day by over a billion people to protect the security of their messages, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently stated that ‘[t]he privacy of a terrorist can never be more important than public safety—never.’ Yet as countless experts and advocates have explained over the past several years of debate over encryption, this is not an argument about security vs. privacy but security vs. security—not only our cybersecurity but also our economic and national security,” said Kevin Bankston, Director of the Open Technology Institute. “That’s why so many former leaders from the national security and law enforcement establishment in the U.S. have voiced opposition to encryption backdoors. For example, former National Security Agency Director and Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, former NSA and CIA  Director Michael Hayden, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and former CIA Director Michael Morrell have all made the case that undermining encryption will make us less safe, not more—and that’s just the Michaels!”

Just as a broad range of technical, legal, and national security experts have rejected the idea of backdoors, so too has the U.S. Congress, where key committees last year issued an expert report concluding that undermining encryption would be against America’s national interest. Meanwhile, the relevant committee of the European Parliament just last month concluded that not only should the E.U. not undermine encrypted messaging technology, it should work to promote its adoption to better protect the privacy and security of Europeans. Similarly, EUROPOL—the cross-E.U. law enforcement agency—last year issued a statement warning policymakers that “intentionally weaken[ing] technical protection mechanisms [like encryption] to support law enforcement will intrinsically weaken the protection against criminals as well.” Yet this week, the Five Eyes governments are apparently discussing possible ways of doing just that.

“The fact that so many serious political leaders are still arguing that we should combat terrorism by undermining our own security, against the advice of their own legislatures and practically every technical and national security expert that has voiced an opinion, is either a shocking policy failure, cynical and politically opportunistic tech-scapegoating, or both,” Bankston continued.  “It’s also a dangerous waste of limited time and resources that could be spent on helping investigators figure out how best to adapt to a world where encryption is more common rather than vainly trying to force the technology to adapt to them,” Bankston continued. “Let’s hope that as five of the most powerful countries in the world meet this week in Ottawa, they heed the advice of experts and policymakers around the world and avoid any anti-encryption decisions that would make us, our economy, and our rights less safe.”