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MI5 Director General Pushes for ‘Exceptional Access’ to Encrypted Messages

MI5 Director General Pushes for ‘Exceptional Access’ to Encrypted Messages

The director general of Britain’s Security Service is pushing for “exceptional access” to encrypted messages. The comments are just the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between authorities and technology companies over the encryption of messages and other information on smartphones and other devices.

The Guardian reports Sir Andrew Parker is particularly concerned about Facebook, which announced plans to introduce end-to-end encryption last March across all the social media firm’s services.

MI5’s director general has called on technology companies to find a way to allow spy agencies “exceptional access” to encrypted messages, amid fears they cannot otherwise access such communications.

Sir Andrew Parker is understood to be particularly concerned about Facebook, which announced plans to introduce powerful end-to-end encryption last March across all the social media firm’s services.

In an ITV interview to be broadcast on Thursday, Sir Andrew Parker says he has found it “increasingly mystifying” that intelligence agencies like his are not able to easily read secret messages of terror suspects they are monitoring.

Parker claims cyberspace has become an unregulated “a wild west, unregulated, inaccessible to authorities.” Parker says tech firms should answer the following question:

“Can you provide end-to-end encryption but on an exceptional basis – exceptional basis – where there is a legal warrant and a compelling case to do it, provide access to stop the most serious forms of harm happening?”

The U.K. government, along with other governments such as the United States and Australia, have long argued that the end-to-end encryption used by messaging apps such as iMessage, WhatsApp, and others, provide a “safe haven” for terrorists since the government and even the companies that host the services cannot break the encryption.

Tech companies, including Apple and Google, have pushed back against attempts to weaken encryption methods, including requests by the FBI and other agencies, such as when Apple was requested by the FBI to unlock the iPhone used by The San Bernardino shooter in the December 2015 shooting.

Apple refused to aid the FBI in unlocking the device, as well as other devices involved in other notorious shooting incidents and terrorist acts. The Cupertino firm has long argued against forcing tech companies to build “back doors” into their software that would allow law enforcement and other government agencies to view encrypted messages. They argue that such a move would weaken security for everyone, while terrorists and other bad actors would simply turn to open source encryption methods.

While officials have proposed that tech companies send a copy of encrypted messages and their encryption keys to unscramble them when requested following a warrant. However, encrypted communications services such as iMessage and WhatsApp don’t have access to the private keys required to decrypt messages, meaning a back door of some type would be required to access the messages.

Back doors such as requested by the government could be used by criminals, and yes government agencies to decrypt messages.

Technology human rights group, Privacy International, told The Guardian that strong encryption kept communications safe from criminals and hostile governments.

“The reality is that these big tech platforms are international companies: providing access to UK police would mean establishing a precedent that police around the world could use to compel the platforms to monitor activists and opposition, from Hong Kong to Honduras,” the spokesperson said.