The US-led “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance said tech firms must allow law enforcement agencies access to encrypted material, warning failing to do so put people at risk.
After a two-day summit in London, senior ministers from the group comprising the United States and allies Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, said encryption should not come at the expense of public safety.
“We are concerned where companies deliberately design systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes,” the group said in a statement following the conference.
“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and usable format.”
The five English-speaking allies have an agreement to share intelligence and techniques for gathering it, a relationship that evolved from a secret World War Two alliance between British and US cypher and code breaking teams.
Encrypted data makes it harder for spies to pry. Western governments said this complicates investigations and prosecutions in child sex abuse or terrorism cases.
Tech firms warn putting “backdoors” into systems to allow authorities access would weaken security and make them vulnerable to attacks by criminals or foreign states.
“The Five Eyes are united that tech firms should not develop systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk,” said British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
US President Donald Trump’s attorney general William Barr attracted controversy last week when he complained about the proliferation of “warrant-proof encryption” making it easier for criminals to “evade detection”.
“Encryption presents a unique challenge. We must ensure we do not stand by as advances in technology create spaces where criminal activity of the most heinous kind can go undetected and unpunished,” Barr said after the security summit.
Britain’s Home Office said the tech industry, part of a roundtable with ministers, agreed to collaborate with Five Eyes on a set of voluntary principles, which will be drawn up by the end of the September, on steps to combat child sex abuse, including the growing threat of livestreaming.