The US political establishment has made clear its growing frustration over tech firms refusal to provide backdoor access to encryption for law enforcement.

During a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, both democrat and republican senators displayed a rare show of unity when they demanded that tech firms open up encryption to policet, and senators accused tech firms of “shielding criminals”.

There is a growing pressure on tech firms over encryption. Last month Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organisation, halted its criticism of encryption after objections by tech companies and civil liberties advocates.

Encryption regulation?

But now according to Reuters, tech firms was once again being singled out by US senators, after they grilled executives from both Apple and Facebook over the technology.

The senators threatened to regulate the technology unless the companies make encrypted user data accessible to law enforcement, Reuters reported. The senators cited child abuse and mass shooting cases in which encryption had blocked access to key evidence and frustrated investigations.

“You’re going to find a way to do this or we’re going to go do it for you,” republican senator Lindsey Graham was quoted as saying by Reuters. “We’re not going to live in a world where a bunch of child abusers have a safe haven to practice their craft. Period. End of discussion.”

Australia in December 2018 made a significant change to online privacy after it passed a law that requires technology giants to give police access to encrypted data, in cases where it could be linked to criminal or militant activity.

Other countries have threatened to follow suit.

Facebook for its part has been singled out of late after announcing plans to fully encrypt its Messenger chats by default (WhatsApp messages are already encrypted).

In August the US Department of Justice reportedly pressured Facebook to break the encryption in its Messenger app, so law enforcement could listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe.

But in October Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services, after an open letter was signed by the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General Bill Barr, acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

Essentially that letter raised concerns that Facebook’s plan to build end-to-end encryption into its messaging apps would prevent law enforcement agencies from searching for child sexual exploitation, terrorism, and election meddling.

Encryption frustration

Last year the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) listed encryption as one of the technologies making criminals’ jobs easier, as it makes it more difficult for law enforcement organisations to “collect intelligence and evidence”.

Apple has already made its position regarding encryption perfectly clear to US authorities, and CEO Tim Cook recently called for a federal privacy law in the United States.

But Apple was also placed under immense pressure in a high-profile 2016 case, in which the FBI attempted to force Apple to assist it in unlocking an iPhone connected to a mass shooting in California.

Apple refused, and ultimately the FBI paid a third-party security group to hack into the handset.

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Tom Jowitt @TJowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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