Encryption is the current hot potato that politicians just don’t want to drop, and the latest to weigh into the debate is the frontrunner for the upcoming French Presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron.
Macron launched his Presidential campaign yesterday which included his five-point plan for defeating terrorism. France has been the scene for a number of dreadful terrorist atrocities in recent years including the attacks on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, in Paris again later that year, and in Nice in 2016.
Given the frequency of the attacks and France’s vulnerability to terrorist infiltration as a result of Europe’s open border policy, it is an understandably sensitive subject with many people in the country.
But as we discussed on this site recently, politicians do tend to use such sensitivity to pass disproportionate legislation and it seems that Macron is likely to make the same mistake.
Macron attacks encryption
Launching his campaign, Macron said that it was “no longer acceptable” for companies to use contractual obligations to their customers as an excuse not to hand over their private communications to law enforcement bodies.
The BBC reported that he went on to say “Democratic states must have access to content exchanged between terrorists on social media and instant messaging.”
“Until now, big Internet companies have refused to give their encryption keys or access to this content,” he went on, before insisting that accessing private communications can work alongside online privacy.
“You can be strongly in favour of protecting your privacy and your conversations — and it’s my case. And it’s not incompatible with new rules so that the police can prevent terrorist attacks efficiently, with all the safeguards we need.”
A “legal requisition system”
Macron indicated that he planned to push for a pan-European initiative to force tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter to “accept a legal requisition system of their encrypted services similar to the existing one for telecom companies”.
As is so often the case, Macron has displayed a fundamental lack of understanding as to how encrypted communications work. He has failed to grasp that breaking encryption once breaks it for everyone and forever. And he has also overlooked the fact that encryption is vital to so many services we take for granted these days, such as online banking.
It is to be hoped that on learning more from the tech companies in question, he will back down from his ill-thought-through policy proposals, just as the British Home Secretary Amber Rudd did last week. But should he persist, it is likely to set up a huge conflict with those tech companies that have pledged to support encryption at all costs.
But these will still be worrying times for French, and indeed European, internet users who value their online privacy and security. Macron is the favourite to win the Election race and is expected to make it through the first round of voting which takes place on April 23rd.
Internet Society calls for ubiquitous encryption
It is somewhat ironic that Macron’s call comes at a time when the Internet Society has been addressing the G20 meeting in Italy and urging politicians not to undermine encryption but rather to make it “ubiquitous” across the internet.
The President and CEO of the Internet Society, Kathryn Brown, said at the G20 that encryption “should be made stronger and universal, not weaker”.
“Rather than being recognised as the way to secure our online transactions or our conversations, all too often the debate focuses on the use of encryption as a way to thwart law enforcement,” she explained. “To undermine the positive role of encryption in the name of security could have devastating consequences.”
Her comments are part of the Internet Society’s campaign to secure the global digital economy and made a rational and informed case. But sadly it seems likely that they are to fall on deaf ears, with the subject not even being raised at a meeting of European Digital Minister’s in Düsseldorf last week.
And with another ‘encryption sceptic’ looking likely to be elected, rather than being enhanced, its role seems far more likely to be diminished still further in the coming months and years.