EU committee backs privacy in the encryption war

The European Parliament is bucking against the UK government’s anti-encryption rhetoric, pushing for amended regulation that bans the use of backdoors for law enforcement.

In a draft report by the EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, recommendations are given around privacy and electronic communications. According to the report, providers of services should “ensure there is sufficient protection in place against unauthorised access” to user data.

It goes on to say that the “confidentiality and safety” of communications should be guaranteed, either by the method of transmission itself, or by end-to-end encryption.

“Furthermore, when encryption of electronic communications data is used, decryption, reverse engineering or monitoring of such communications shall be prohibited,” the report reads.

Banning backdoors vs banning encryption

The call for a ban on backdoors to encryption is a marked contrast to the recent policy of several other Western powers, particularly the UK and the US. The UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, for example, makes it possible for authorities to order companies to remove “electronic protection” if necessary.

Over in the US, in the wake of last year’s Apple vs FBI fight – when the tech firm refused to grant access to unlock the San Bernardino gunman’s iPhone – there have been efforts by politicians to squash encryption. This includes a proposed bill by Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein to force companies to install backdoors into their encryption systems.

The EU draft report has to be approved by European Parliament, then reviewed by the EU Council, so there’s always a chance it will be tweaked, softened, or thrown out altogether. If the amendments do go through, however, it could lead to a legislative clash, where European companies are forced to keep encryption airtight, but UK or US firms are forced to create backdoors to their software. How could this work on an international basis?

Even within the EU this could lead to clashes. Last week German interior minister Thomas de Maizière said the government was considering giving authorities greater powers to decipher encrypted messages. “We can’t allow there to be areas that are practically outside the law,” he said, according to The Register. This echoes Theresa May’s comments following the London Bridge attacks, as she emphasised the need for authorities to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online”.

In this context, the new proposed amendments come as a pushback, insisting on the protection of citizen privacy at a time when many governments are calling for sacrifices to be made in the name of security. It’s the latest move in an international debate that’s sure to play out over the months and years to come.

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