The Europol Encryption, Privacy and Cyber Crime Tightrope

Security is paramount, or is it? There has been a lot in the press recently about the delicate balance that technology companies need to strike between ensuring legitimate user privacy on the one hand and the use of this same security technology by terrorists to communicate privately on the other. The debate has been further fuelled on both sides of the pond firstly by James Comey (Director at FBI) and more recently by Rob Wainwright, Director at Europol. I must admit I didn’t about Europol, so in this post I will share a couple of things I have picked up in the last few days.

What is Europol?

From the Europol About Us page, “Europol is the European Union’s law enforcement agency whose main goal is to achieve a safer Europe for the benefit of all EU citizens”. In and amongst illegal drugs, trafficking, counterfeiting, organised crime, they also deal with cyber crime.

What are Europol doing about Cyber Crime?

In 2013 to spearhead the fight against cyber crime Europol created a European Cybercrime Centre (EC3). The European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) targets cyber crime in 3 keys areas:

  1. Cyber crime committed by organised groups
  2. Cyber crime that causes direct harm to individuals
  3. Cyber crime that impacts important infrastructure and information systems in the EU

What was the BBC Radio 5 Show all about?

Over the weekend during a BBC Radio show (5 Live) Rob Wainwright amongst others [David Omand (Former GCHQ Director), a TechUK bloke (cant remember his name) and Jamie Bartlett (The Dark Net)] shared their thoughts about encryption, security and user privacy:

  • The show explained how many people are using widely available encryption technology from companies such as Apple, Google and Twitter to enable end to end private communication
  • Now this same everyday / easily accessible technology is being used by terrorist organisations to exchange messages in a encrypted format, which makes it difficult for security agencies to intercept and listen into the exchanged messages
  • Some of the mentioned applications that encrypt data and enable anonymity online included Surespot, Twitter, Askfm, BitMessage and Tor
  • The program also acknowledged that encryption was being used legitimately by:
    • Corporates wanting to keep trade secrets and data secure from competitors and from hackers
    • Whistle blowers who needed to talk with the media in confidence
    • Political activists in countries where they could not otherwise openly air their views

What was Rob Wainwright, Europol Director, saying?

  • In short, Rob was saying that encryption was “perhaps the biggest problem….in dealing with the threats from terrorism”. The fight against terrorism lies in the ability of authorities, such as Europol, to monitor communication and the move to online and encrypted channels is now disrupting that
  • Rob went further and said “We are disappointed by the position taken by these tech firms and it only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people…..”
  • Rob made reference to the Edward Snowden surveillance revelations and the resulting public desire to exchange messages privately and explained that technology companies are offering the technology “because of a commercial imperative driven by what they perceive to be consumer demand for greater privacy of their communications”

The Tightrope

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Listeners to the radio show also offered their thoughts, and interestingly one shared that encryption is nothing new. Encryption has been widely available for ages and authorities should have been alert to the technology and the potential use of it by terrorist organisations. Another view described how virtually everything that is digital is encrypted from data on our mobile phones through to making a card payment at a local supermarket or online. There is no doubt that technology is yet again disrupting traditional ways of doing stuff, including law enforcement. As we start to do more online the tightrope lies in how to distinguish and subsequently police legitimate and innocent private online exchanges from those that are illegal and potentially dangerous to the general public. The debate continues…



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