WhatsApp faces international pressure to hand over access to encrypted chats

Priti PatelBritish Home Secretary Priti Patel.REUTERS/Toby Melville/Pool

  • Messaging services like WhatsApp face increased pressure from governments to let spies infiltrate private conversations, undermining the promise of end-to-end encrypted chats.
  • The UK hosted the "Five Eyes" nations for a security summit this week. In a press statement following the summit UK home secretary Priti Patel and US Attorney General William Barr signalled that they had encryption in their sights.
  • The UK's spy agency GCHQ has previously suggested a feature which would force encrypted apps to create systems capable of secretly inserting government agents into private chats.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services face pressure to hand over access to encrypted chats after a meeting between the "Five Eyes" nations which share intelligence this week.

The two-day summit brought together the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and was hosted by the UK's home secretary Priti Patel on Monday and Tuesday. Representatives from tech firms also attended, including WhatsApp's parent company Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Roblox, Snap and Twitter.

According to a Home Office press statement, "ministers stressed that law enforcement agencies' efforts to investigate and prosecute the most serious crimes would be hampered if the industry carries out plans to implement end-to-end encryption, without the necessary safeguards."

Read more: Apple and WhatsApp are trying to fight off plans from British spies to "ghost" their way into your encrypted messages

In a press statement Patel did not explicitly call for backdoor access to apps, but signalled that encrypted messaging will be subject to particular scrutiny.

"The Five Eyes are united that tech firms should not develop their systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk," she said. US Attorney General William Barr echoed this, saying encryption poses a "unique challenge."

"We must ensure that we do not stand by as advances in technology create spaces where criminal activity of the most heinous kind can go undetected and unpunished," he said.

End-to-end encryption means that only the people sending and receiving a message can read it, and is therefore one of the most secure ways of communicating online. The disadvantage for governments is that this privacy extends to criminals and terrorists, who reportedly use these apps while planning attacks. WhatsApp is the most popular messaging service to use end-to-end encryption, and parent Facebook is considering deploying the tech by default across its family of messaging services including Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct.

WhatsApp was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Business Insider.

William Barr.JPGUS Attorney General William Barr.REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

Last year Britain's spy agency GCHQ published a "ghost" proposal, which would mandate that encrypted messaging apps create a system capable of surreptitiously copying government agents into private chats.

WhatsApp has pushed back against the idea of introducing special tools to provide governments with access to users' chats on both ethical and technical grounds.

"If UK officials were to demand that providers rewrite their software to permit the additions of a ghost UK government participant in encrypted chats, there is no way to prevent other governments from relying on this newly built system. This is of particular concern with regard to repressive regimes and any country with a poor record on protecting human rights," WhatsApp wrote in a joint letter along with co-signatories including Apple, Google, and Microsoft in May.

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