Europol Chief Criticises Online Encryption

NSA backdoor broken packlock encryption security © keantian Shutterstock

Messaging and smartphone encryption have created a ‘capability gap’ for law enforcement and security organisations, according to Rob Wainwright

The chief or Europol has echoed recent comments by the FBI and GCHQ in calling the increasing prevalence of encrypted Internet communications a major difficulty for law-enforcement and national security efforts.

Rob Wainwright said such communications have led to a “significant capability gap” that is preventing law-enforcement bodies from dealing with Internet abuse, including its use to help organise extremist groups.

Encryption key

Speaking to 5 Live Investigates, Wainwright said encrypted communications have become central to the operations of extremist networks.

“It’s become perhaps the biggest problem for the police and the security service authorities in dealing with the threats from terrorism,” he said. “It’s changed the very nature of counter-terrorist work from one that has been traditionally reliant on having good monitoring capability of communications to one that essentially doesn’t provide that anymore.”

He added that Europol is “disappointed” by the increasing addition of encryption features to messaging applications and smartphones.

“We are disappointed by the position taken by these tech firms and it only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people that are abusing the Internet,” he said.

Demand for such features has grown in part due to the documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, revealing the extent of governments’ monitoring of online communications.

‘Clear legal framework’

Wainwright said Europol is setting up a European Internet Referral Unit to identify and remove Internet sites being used by extremist organisations, and called for a review of current laws to facilitate monitoring.

“There is a significant capability gap that has to change if we’re serious about ensuring the internet isn’t abused and effectively enhancing the terrorist threat,” he said.

TechUK, the UK’s technology trade association, told the programme that the IT industry is working with law-enforcers to find the right balance.

“Encryption is an essential component of the modern world and ensures the UK retains its position as one of the world’s leading economies,” TechUK said. “With the right resources and cooperation between the security agencies and technology companies, alongside a clear legal framework for that cooperation, we can ensure both national security and economic security are upheld.”

In November of last year GCHQ director Robert Hannigan called for support from US IT companies in helping with the “challenge” of combating extremist groups, and FBI director James Comey has made similar comments in recent months.

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee earlier this month presented proposals for the reform of privacy and intelligence laws for the Internet age.

Are you a security pro? Try our quiz!