Controversial draft EU proposals seek to gain access to citizens' private messages by allowing it to bypass encryption systems.
The European Union has a problem. How does it legislate against the encrypted communication of messaging apps without it looking like an assault on privacy and expanding government surveillance? The answer, perhaps predictably, is the threat posed by so-called Islamism.
A leaked draft memo outlining the European Council’s position on encryption states that a new legal framework is necessary to “protect people in Europe from Islamism.”
Recent attacks in France and Austria proclaimed in the name of Islam, but condemned by the vast majority of Muslims, has given some European leaders cover to push a controversial law under the cover of law and order.
French President Emmanuel Macron, facing domestic pressure as a result of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, has sought to harness rising nationalism on the back of the murder of a school teacher.
Macron’s Austrian counterpart, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, has similarly attempted to appear tough on crime after an attack by an ISIS (Daesh) sympathiser last week left four people dead.
The draft ministerial communication singled out “Islam” and the need for it to be “both peaceful and respectful of the laws adopted by our Member States.”
“This fight against extremism must not lead to the exclusion and stigmatisation of religious groups,” the statement went on to add.
Against this backdrop, the EU is seeking the means to legislate that popular messaging apps, like WhatsApp and Signal, which have end to end encryption, will give authorities the means to fight “Islamist extremism.”
End to end encryption is a method that secures communication in such a way that it prevents third parties from accessing the data being transferred.
A draft of the EU proposal obtained by the Associated Press says that “competent authorities must be able to access data in a lawful and targeted manner, in full respect of fundamental rights and the data protection regime, while upholding cybersecurity.”
Digital rights activists, however, have warned against the law and the potentially damaging impact it could have on civil liberties.
“The proposed EU regulation is an attack on the integrity of digital infrastructure and therefore very dangerous,” said the German Left party lawmaker, Anke Domscheit-Berg.
The German lawmaker also went on to accuse the EU of using this moment of anxiety, following the terror attacks, to swiftly pass the law with little consultation.
Patrick Breyer, a member of the European Parliament said the interception of encrypted communications “would be the end of secure encryption altogether and would open back doors also for hackers, foreign intelligence, etc.”
When Russia attempted a similar move in 2018 with the popular messaging app called Telegram, it was widely condemned internationally for encroaching on civil liberties.
The EU’s proposals for tighter oversight of technology companies is also aimed at tackling terrorist propaganda. It makes no mention of far right extremism which increasingly accounts for the majority of terrorist incidents.
A report in 2019 pointed out that “In 2018, far-right terrorist attacks accounted for 17.2% of terrorist incidents in the West. By contrast, attacks by Islamist groups accounted for 6.8% of attacks, and attacks not attributed to any group accounted for 62.8% of incidents in the West.”