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Orders from the Top: The EU’s Timetable for Dismantling End-to-End Encryption

The last few months have seen a steady stream of proposals, encouraged by the advocacy of the FBI and Department of Justice, to provide “lawful access” to end-to-end encrypted services in the United States. Now lobbying has moved from the U.S., where Congress has been largely paralyzed by the nation’s polarization problems, to the European Union—where advocates for anti-encryption laws hope to have a smoother ride. A series of leaked documents from the EU’s highest institutions show a blueprint for how they intend to make that happen, with the apparent intention of presenting anti-encryption law to the European Parliament within the next year.

The public signs of this shift in the EU—which until now has been largely supportive toward privacy-protecting technologies like end-to-end encryption—began in June with a speech by Ylva Johansson, the EU’s Commissioner for Home Affairs.

Speaking at a webinar on “Preventing and combating child sexual abuse [and] exploitation”, Johansson called for a “technical solution” to what she described as the “problem” of encryption, and announced that her office had initiated “a special group of experts from academia, government, civil society and business to find ways of detecting and reporting encrypted child sexual abuse material.”

The subsequent report was subsequently leaked to Politico. It includes a laundry list of tortuous ways to achieve the impossible: allowing government access to encrypted data, without somehow breaking encryption.

At the top of that precarious stack was, as with similar proposals in the United States, client-side scanning. We’ve explained previously why client-side scanning is a backdoor by any other name. Unalterable computer code that runs on your own device, comparing in real-time the contents of your messages to an unauditable ban-list, stands directly opposed to the privacy assurances that the term “end-to-end encryption” is understood to convey. It’s the same approach used by China to keep track of political conversations on services like WeChat, and has no place in a tool that claims to keep conversations private.

It’s also a drastically invasive step by any government that wishes to mandate it. For the first time outside authoritarian regimes, Europe would be declaring which Internet communication programs are lawful, and which are not. While the proposals are the best that academics faced with squaring a circle could come up with, it may still be too aggressive to politically succeed as  enforceable regulation—even if tied, as Johannsson ensured it was in a subsequent Commission communication, to the fight against child abuse.

But while it would require a concerted political push, EU’s higher powers are gearing up for such a battle. In late September, Statewatch published a note, now being circulated by the current EU German Presidency, called “Security through encryption and security despite encryption”, encouraging the EU’s member states to agree to a new EU position on encryption in the final weeks of 2020.

While conceding that “the weakening of encryption by any means (including backdoors) is not a desirable option”, the Presidency’s note also positively quoted an EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator (CTC) paper from May (obtained and made available by German digital rights news site NetzPolitik.org), which calls for what it calls a “front-door”—a “legal framework that would allow lawful access to encrypted data for law enforcement without dictating technical solutions for providers and technology companies”.

The CTC highlighted what would be needed in order to legislate this framework:

The EU and its Member States should seek to be increasingly present in the public debate on encryption, in order to inform the public narrative on encryption by sharing the law enforcement and judicial perspective…

This avoids a one-sided debate mainly driven by the private sector and other nongovernmental voices. This may involve engaging with relevant advocacy groups, including victims associations that can relate to government efforts in that area. Engagement with the [European Parliament] will also be key to prepare the ground for possible legislation.

A speech by Commissioner Johannsson tying defeating secure messaging to protecting children; a paper spelling out “technical solutions” to attempt to fracture the currently unified (or “one-sided”) opposition; and, presumably in the very near future, once the EU has published its new position on encryption, a concerted attempt to lobby members of the European Parliament for this new legal framework: these all fit the Counter-Terrorist Coordinators’ original plans.

We are in the first stages of a long anti-encryption march by the upper echelons of the EU, headed directly toward Europeans’ digital front-doors. It’s the same direction as the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States have been moving for some time. If Europe wants to keep its status as a jurisdiction that treasures privacy, it will need to fight for it.


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About The Author

Danny O'Brien

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world. Founded in 1990, EFF champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development. We work to ensure that rights and freedoms are enhanced and protected as our use of technology grows. Visit https://www.eff.org

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