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U.S., UK and other countries warn tech firms that encryption creates ‘severe risks’ to public safety

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LONDON — Lawmakers from countries within the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance have warned tech firms that unbreakable encryption technology “creates severe risks to public safety.”

Ministers from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand published a statement Sunday calling on the tech industry to develop a solution that enabled law enforcement to access tightly encrypted messages.

“We urge industry to address our serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content,” the statement, which was signed by U.S. Attorney General William Barr and U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel, said.

The statement, published on the website of the U.S. Department of Justice, was also signed by India and Japan, which are not part of the Five Eyes alliance.

Technology companies like Apple and Facebook encrypt user’s communications “end-to-end,” meaning that only users can access their own messages. It applies to written messages, as well as audio and video communications.

While citizens benefit from additional privacy, law enforcement agencies see end-to-end encryption as a barrier to their investigations and have been calling on tech companies to introduce backdoors that would give law enforcement agencies access.

“We call on technology companies to work with governments … on reasonable, technically feasible solutions,” the governments said.

They added that end-to-end encryption poses a “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.”

Although the nations did concede that some forms of encryption “play a crucial role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security.”

Ultimately, they said they wanted to develop a solution with the tech firms that enabled users to continue communicating privately and securely, but also allow law enforcement and tech firms to monitor criminal activity.

‘Ghost’ recipients

Last year, a group of companies including Apple, Microsoft and WhatsApp opposed a proposal by British spy agency GCHQ that would enable spooks to access people’s encrypted messages.

Under the proposal, GCHQ suggested adding “ghost” recipients to suspicious message threads that the sender and the receiver would be oblivious to.

In an open letter published last May, tech firms and privacy groups said such a feature would “threaten fundamental human rights.”

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