Barr, US, UK, and Australia Team Up to Kill Effective Encryption

US Attorney General, William Barr, along with counterparts in the UK and Australia, are urging Facebook not to encrypt messages on their platform.

In a moment in history when people are seeing the EA Sports FIFA 20 data leak, you would think that improving the security of people’s information would be top of mind for a lot of people. You would be wrong. Instead, governments are now working together to try and deter companies from securing their users information and communications.

At the centre of all of this is Facebook. A while back, they said that they are working on a system to put in place end-to-end encryption. The idea is that it would prevent users from unauthorized third parties from spying on them. This includes hackers with malicious intent and government.

Things got testy earlier this month when the director of the FBI made wild accusations that encrypting messages would somehow lead to child pornography and predators.

Now, it seems that the US, UK, and Australia are teaming up to try and dissuade Facebook from securing their users personal information and communications. Reports are surfacing that they sent a joint letter to Facebook urging the company to stop the move to encrypt their users information. From The Guardian:

The open letter, dated 4 October, is jointly signed by the UK home secretary, Priti Patel; the US attorney general, William Barr; the US acting secretary of homeland security, Kevin McAleenan; and the Australian minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton, and is expected to be released Friday.

It will call on Facebook not to “proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens”.

Also on Friday, the US and UK announced the signing of a “world-first” data access agreement that will allow law enforcement agencies to demand certain data directly from the other country’s tech firms without going through their governments first. The agreement is designed to facilitate investigations related to terrorism, child abuse and exploitation, and other serious crimes.

Prior to the agreement, requests for data from foreign technology companies were submitted to governments and frequently took between six months to two years. The new bilateral agreement is expected to speed this process significantly, to weeks or even days.

This is, of course, not the first time Barr made an attack on security. Back in late July, Barr pushed for the US to ban all encryption that did not have a backdoor or that authorities couldn’t crack. He referred to such security as “warrant-proof” security at the time. Digital rights advocates quickly pushed back on those claims, saying that encryption is the bedrock of everyday infrastructure from all sectors of society among other things.

In a subsequent report, Facebook has responded by disagreeing with Barrs request. From USAToday:

Facebook opposes Barr’s request.

“We believe people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world,” the company wrote in a statement shared with USA TODAY. “End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day….We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere.”

Facebook added that the company is consulting closely with child safety experts, governments and technology companies.

End-to-end encryption is used in all WhatsApp conversations, meaning such exchanges are secured with a lock. Only the sender and recipient have the special key needed to unlock and read them.

From a digital rights perspective, it’s particularly weird that it’s quite easy to side with Facebook on something. In this case, however, it’s not hard to side with the company. This is because if large companies can be bullied into submission by the government to stop protecting their users, it sends an awful message that not only should companies not protect their users information, but it’s actually actively discouraged that you do so.

Obviously, with this latest push, we are seeing this debate continue to heat up. With Facebook pushing back against the demand letter, the ball is now in the governments court. So, it’ll be interesting to see how the government reacts to this latest pushback.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.