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European police chiefs advocate for public safety in encryption rollout

European police chiefs advocate for public safety in encryption rollout


The Director General of the National Crime Agency and European Police Chiefs are calling for industry and governments to take urgent action to ensure public safety across technology platforms

At a meeting in London, the 32 European Police Chiefs agreed a statement expressing their deep concern that end-to-end encryption is being rolled out in a way that undermines their ability to investigate crime and keep the public safe.

It will stop technology companies from seeing offending that occurs on their platforms. It will also hamper law enforcement’s ability to lawfully access data as part of investigations to prevent and prosecute the most serious crimes, such as child sexual abuse, human trafficking, drug smuggling, murder, economic crime and terrorism offences.

Speaking at the meeting, NCA Director General Graeme Biggar and Europol Executive Director Catherine de Bolle emphasised the need for technology companies to maintain law enforcement’s lawful access to data, and to ensure their operating systems, devices and applications are safe by design.

NCA Director General Graeme Biggar said: “Encryption can be hugely beneficial, protecting users from a range of crimes. But the blunt and increasingly widespread rollout by major tech companies of end-to-end encryption, without sufficient consideration for public safety, is putting users in danger.

“They cannot protect their customers as they are no longer able see illegal behaviour on their own systems. Child abuse does not stop just because companies choose to stop looking.

“These changes are also making it harder for us to investigate serious crime and protect the public, as the companies are less able to act on a warrant and provide us with the data of suspected criminals.

“Privacy and public safety need not be mutually exclusive. Solutions need to be found that deliver both. We all have a responsibility to ensure that those who seek to abuse these platforms are identified and caught, and that platforms become more safe, not less. We cannot let ourselves be blinded to crime.”

Europol Executive Director Catherine de Bolle said: “Our homes are becoming more dangerous than our streets as crime is moving online. To keep our society and people safe, we need this digital environment to be secured. Tech companies have a social responsibility to develop a safer environment where law enforcement and justice can do their work. If police lose the ability to collect evidence, our society will not be able to protect people from becoming victims of crime.”

The declaration comes as technology companies like Meta, who over the years have acted responsibly by proactively reporting suspected instances of child sexual abuse, have made a business decision to implement end-to-end encryption across their messenger platform. Over recent years, such reports have contributed to the NCA and UK policing safeguarding around 1,200 children and arresting around 800 suspects every single month. However, the NCA estimates the vast majority of reports (92% from Facebook and 85% from Instagram) that are currently disseminated to UK police each year will be lost as a result of this decision.

One example of what would be lost is a recent 200 page referral on an international sextortion case, which identified multiple suspect accounts purporting to be females to entice young boys in the UK and overseas to share indecent images and videos of themselves, with a view to financially blackmailing them.

Law enforcement’s ability to tackle a number of other serious crime threats will also be hampered, if technology companies cannot respond to a warrant because the information has been hidden behind end-to-end encryption. As a result of one stream of data provided by tech companies in response to warrants, the NCA produced intelligence that led to 327 arrests, the seizure of 3.5 tonnes of Class A drugs, the recovery of £4.8m, the identification of 29 previously unknown threats to life, and a further 100 threats to harm, between January and March this year.

Another example is the identification and arrest of a firearms armourer, who was storing multiple weapons and ammunition. Without the ability for tech companies to provide data in response to a lawful warrant, officers would not have had the chance to dismantle a firearms supply chain, and seize firearms and ammunition before they entered criminal circulation.

Since the UK left the European Union, the National Crime Agency have continued to work closely with EUROPOL and European partners to tackle the threats from serious and organised crime. The NCA’s International Liaison Officer network is working closer than ever with EU partners, with significant successes against a range of crime threats including organised immigration crime, drug trafficking and cyber crime.