Tag: Intelligence service

The Controversy around the Council of the European Union’s Declaration on End-to-End Encryption

27. November 2020

In the course of November 2020, the Council of the European Union issued several draft versions of a joint declaration with the working title “Security through encryption and security despite encryption”. The drafts were initially intended only for internal purposes, but leaked and first published by the Austrian brodcasting network “Österreichischer Rundfunk” (“ORF”) in an article by journalist Erich Möchel. Since then, the matter has sparked widespread public interest and media attention.

The controversy around the declaration arose when the ORF commentator Möchel presented further information from unknown sources that “compentent authorities” shall be given “exceptional access” to the end-to-end encryption of communications. This would mean that communications service providers like WhatsApp, Signal etc. would be obliged to allow a backdoor and create a general key to encrypted communications which they would deposit with public authorities. From comparing the version of the declaration from 6 November 2020 with the previous version from 21 October 2020, he highlighted that in the previous version it states that additional practical powers shall be given to “law enforcement and judicial authorities”, whereas in the more recent version, the powers shall be given to “competent authorities in the area of security and criminal justice”. He adds that the new broader wording would include European intelligence agencies as well and allow them to undermine end-to-end encryption. Furthermore, he also indicated that plans to restrict end-to-end encyption in Western countries are not new, but originally proposed by the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

As a result of the ORF article, the supposed plans to restrict or ban end-to-end encryption have been widely criticised by Politicians, Journalists, and NGOs stating that any backdoors to end-to-end encryption would render any secure encryption impossible.

However, while it can be verified that the “Five Eyes” propose the creation of general keys to access end-to-end encrypted communications, similar plans for the EU cannot be clearly deduced from the EU Council’s declaration at hand. The declaration itself recognises end-to-end encryption as highly beneficial to protect governments, critical infrastructures, civil society, citizens and industry by ensuring privacy, confidentiality and data integrity of communications and personal data. Moreover, it mentions that EU data protection authorities have identified it as an important tool in light of the Schrems II decision of the CJEU. At the same time, the Council’s declaration illustrates that end-to-end encryption poses large challenges for criminal investigations when gathering evidencein cases of cyber crime, making it at times “practically impossible”. Lastly, the Council calls for an open, unbiased and active discussion with the tech industry, research and academia in order to achieve a better balance between “security through encryption and security despite encryption”.

Möchel’s sources for EU plans to ban end-to-end encryption through general keys remain unknown and unverifiable. Despite general concerns for overarching surveillance powers of governments, the public can only approach the controversy around the EU Council’s declaration with due objectivity and remain observant on whether or how the EU will regulate end-to-end encryption and find the right balance between the privacy rights of European citizens and the public security and criminal justice interests of governments.