Where you stand on encryption generally depends on whether you’re part of a government organisation or not. This week Europol police chief waded in to the encryption debate stating that online communication that makes use of encryption is the biggest problem for security services in their fight against terrorism.
Europol head Rob Wainwright was interviewed as saying hidden areas of the internet are making it more difficult for Europol and other agencies to monitor terrorists. Wainwright is likely referring to TOR, encrypted services such as VPNs and directly encrypted chat platforms such as WhatsApp.
Increase in encrypted software
In recent years tech companies have sought to increase the encryption of their software and mobile apps in what is being considered a response to what the public require. This requirement comes after revelations from security contractor Edward Snowden revealed the way in which mass surveillance has been being carried out.
The world has gone encryption conscious, from chat apps such as WhatsApp to the option to encrypt your Apple phone without the ability for Apple themselves to decrypt. The uptake of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks are increasingly being used by the general public and are stoking the fire of privacy.
Wainwright in direct argument against encryption claimed that in the majority of their current investigations encrypted communication was now one of the central ways in which terrorists operate.
Spy agencies lost their advantage
Like Europol security services around the world have long relied on monitoring suspected targets, from the olden days of bugging hotel rooms and cars to more recently monitoring internet communications from email to chat sites. Encryption tools available to the general public are also available to terrorist organisations and the uptake and technical ability of such organisations is increasingly making monitoring communications a much more difficult task.
As public awareness of how widespread government monitoring was coupled with an increase in concern about criminal interception of communications encryption tools and privacy services such as TOR are being used in increasing numbers. Europol head Wainwright is concerned that terrorists are now able to make use of the same systems and go online anonymously via services such as the “dark net”.
While the use of VPN services and TOR require a minimal amount of technical know-how concern was also expressed towards tech companies who are enabling encryption by default such as Apple and instant messaging apps that encrypt communication without user input.
Although Europol are concerned about the increase in encrypted communication head Wainwright was quick to acknowledge that the surge in encryption and privacy related services is likely a result of the details exposed by US security contractor Edward Snowden. Due to these revelations security services would now need to rebuild the trust of technology companies and ultimately the public if they hope to keep countries safe from terrorism moving forward.
Terrorism and social media
Concern from authorities is well placed with leading experts claiming that terrorist groups such as Islamic State are using public messaging networks such as Twitter to initially source sympathisers who then move to use more encrypted messaging services like Surespot and Bit message to discuss greater in-depth plans surrounding terrorism.
Mr Wainwright stated that there are as many as 50,000 Twitter accounts linked to Islamic State with tweets totalling 100,000 per day. Wainwright continued that capability for the security services needs to be increased to close the gap if they are to effectively police against terrorist threats being committed through encrypted channels of the internet.
While users can no doubt sympathise with the security services one has to wonder if it was not for the underhand way in which mass surveillance was carried out would encryption be so widely available to the general user now.
Rob Wainwright was talking to the BBC’s Live Investigates on Radio 5. Users interested in listening can on the programme page with the discussion starting at 14m 25s.