France and Germany: Fighting terrorism by weakening encryption

By EDRi · August 24, 2016

On 23 August, the French and German Ministers of Interior met in Paris to discuss an initiative that would extend surveillance in Europe and weaken encryption, in the name of the fight against terrorism.

Speaking at a joint press conference, French Minister of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve and his German counterpart Thomas de Maizière called for legislation that would force intermediaries to weaken encryption standards. This would, according to Cazeneuve, allow to “truly arm our democracies on the issue of encryption”. Cazeneuve also explained, failing to notice that the European e-Commerce Directive already contains this obligation, that they want to oblige internet companies to censor illegal content.

The French Ministry of Interior explained its intentions in a tweet: the country plans to ask the EU Commission to put forward an EU-wide measure that would oblige online companies, such as WhatsApp or Telegram, to decrypt communications within the context of police investigations – even if the company’s seat is not in Europe. The upcoming review of the ePrivacy Directive is very likely to become the next encryption battlefield.

These plans do not meet the approval of the French data protection authority CNIL which stated in an Op-Ed in the French newspaper Le Monde that the call for encryption backdoors “is not taking into account the importance of encryption for our security online”.

Cazeneuve first announced his intentions to “launch a European initiative, leading to a more international plan that will permit to face this new challenge” after a French government meeting on security on 11 August. Now Cazeneuve and de Maizière hope to have the issue on the agenda for the next meeting of European leaders in Bratislava on 16 September.

French intelligence services claim to be struggling with intercepting messages from Islamist extremists. However, many of the suspects of recent terrorist attacks were using unencrypted SMS, and were already known to the authorities. The investigation into the Brussels attacks in March 2016 revealed that inefficient intelligence and police work was one of the key factors that failed to prevent the attacks.

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Encrypted messaging services, such as Telegram, Whatsapp or Signal, can be used for sending text messages, videos and voice messages with a very high level of security. It’s extremely difficult for anyone else but the authorised recipient to read or view messages sent using end-to-end encryption. Today, encryption is used widely across the web to secure e-commerce, banking and many other online services, as well as by journalists, whistleblowers, civil rights defenders and others who need to maintain confidentiality of their communications. As the Report of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye put it,

encryption and anonymity enable individuals to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age and, as such, deserve strong protection.

France says fight against messaging encryption needs worldwide initiative (11.08.2016)

Paris wants a global action on encrypted communications (only in French, 11.08.2016)

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye (22.05.2015)

Fraco-German initiative on the European interior security (only in French, 23.08.2016)

Tweet by the French Ministry of Interior (only in French, 23.08.2016):

Fight against terrorism: Cazeneuve and Maiziere meet in Paris (only in French, 23.08.2016)

French minister: Apps like Telegram must be decrypted for legal probes (23.08.2016)

Attacking encryption to fight terrorism is a wrong target (only in French, 23.08.2016)