Officials from five countries including Canada have agreed to "engagement" with communication-service providers on the use of encryption among terrorists and other criminals – which Canadian law enforcement and government agencies have described as an impediment to investigations.
Security and justice officials from Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – known as the Five Eyes – gathered in Ottawa this week to discuss national-security challenges, including the use of encryption applications such as WhatsApp and Signal by extremists to hide their electronic communications.
"Ministers and Attorneys-General also noted that encryption can severely undermine public safety efforts by impeding lawful access to the content of communications during investigations into serious crimes, including terrorism. To address these issues, we committed to develop our engagement with communications and technology companies to explore shared solutions while upholding cybersecurity and individual rights and freedoms," read a joint communiqué released by the Five Eyes on Wednesday.
The Five Eyes did not expand on what it means by "engagement" and what possible shared solutions would be.
The alliance is looking at whether security agencies should be able to lawfully access encrypted communications during investigations into serious crimes.
Companies in Five Eyes countries are not required by law to hold decryption "keys" that unscramble encrypted communications, such as text messages, and when they do not, it's impossible for them to provide government or law-enforcement agencies with data.
For instance, the RCMP were unable to read Islamic State supporter Aaron Driver's encrypted messages with two well-known members of the terrorist group; Mr. Driver was shot dead during a raid led by the Mounties in August, 2016. While Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has acknowledged the significant obstacles encryption presents for Canadian law enforcement and national-security agencies, he said the technology is essential for the growth of Canada's digital economy and the safeguarding of cybersecurity and online privacy.
On the other hand, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron recently called for greater access to encrypted communications as a part of their counterterrorism joint action plan. The plan was announced June 13, after a string of terrorist attacks in Britain and France.
Australian Attorney-General George Brandis led the calls for new limitations on encryption for messaging applications heading into the Five Eyes meeting on Monday and Tuesday. Speaking to Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio National after the meeting in Ottawa, Mr. Brandis said the Five Eyes will engage with Internet service providers and device makers to develop a "series of protocols as to the circumstances to which they will be able to provide voluntary assistance to law enforcement."
Wesley Wark, a national-security expert at the University of Ottawa, said the Five Eyes are handing off responsibility to the private sector.
"They're increasingly moving from a legal instrument to enforce some solution or another to a softer regulatory matter and partnerships with the private sector to see if some kind of understanding can be arrived at about how to deal with that very narrow band of communication that might be of concern to national-security communities," Dr. Wark said.
He suspects the Five Eyes will not go as far as requiring companies to hold decryption keys, but rather agree among themselves to develop capabilities to decrypt certain types of information upon request and under legal authority. But Dr. Wark says one thing is for sure: The companies, many of which work internationally, will not be open to legislative requirements from governments.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said a crackdown on encryption threatens the privacy rights of individuals. "Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies are going to have to learn to live with encryption, just as they've had to learn to live with other tools that the public uses to preserve its privacy, whether whispering or closing the blinds – the many practical things that people have done for eons to guard against snooping."
Signal, developed by Open Whisper Systems, and WhatsApp did not reply to The Globe and Mail's request for comment on Wednesday.
The Five Eyes also committed to supporting a new industry forum led by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter to address terrorist use of the Internet.