EDPB Opines Encryption Ban Would Endanger A Nation’s Compliance with GDPR

As the US and others call on technology companies to develop the means to crack encrypted communications, an EU entity argues any nation with such a law would likely not meet the GDPR’s requirements.

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In a response to a Minister of the European Parliament’s letter, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) articulated its view that any nation that implements an “encryption ban” would endanger its compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and possibly result in companies domiciled in those countries not being able to transfer and process the personal data of EU citizens. However, as always, it bears note the EDPB’s view may not carry the day with the European Commission, Parliament, and courts.

The EDPB’s letter comes amidst another push by the Trump Administration, Republican allies in Congress, and other nations to have technology companies develop workarounds or backdoors to its end-to-end encrypted devices, apps, and systems. The proponents of this change claim online child sexual predators, terrorists, and other criminals are using products and services like WhatsApp, Telegram, and iPhones to defeat legitimate, targeted government surveillance and enforcement. They reason that unless technology companies abandon their unnecessarily absolutist position and work towards a technological solution, the number of bad actors communicating in ways that cannot be broken (aka “going dark”) will increase, allowing for greater crime and wrongdoing.

On the other side of the issue, technology companies, civil liberties and privacy experts, and computer scientists argue that any weakening of or backdoors to encryption will eventually be stolen and exposed, making it easier for criminals to hack, steal, and exfiltrate. They assert the internet and digital age are built on secure communications and threatening this central feature would wreak havoc beyond the crimes the US and other governments are seeking to prevent.

The EDPB stated

Any ban on encryption or provisions weakening encryption would undermine the GDPR obligations on the  concerned  controllers  and  processors  for  an  effective  implementation  of  both  data  protection principles and the appropriate technical and organisational measures. Similar considerations apply to transfers to controllers or processors in any third countries adopting such bans or provisions. Security measures are therefore specifically mentioned among the elements   the   European Commission must take into account when assessing the adequacy of the level of protection in a third country. In the absence of such a decision, transfers are subject to appropriate safeguards or maybe based on derogations; in any case the security of the personal data has to be ensured at all times.

The EDPB opined “that any encryption ban would seriously undermine compliance with the GDPR.” The EDPB continued, “[m]ore specifically, whatever the instrument used,  it would represent a major  obstacle in recognising a level of protection essentially equivalent to that ensured by the applicable  data protection law in the EU, and would seriously question the ability of the concerned controllers and processors to comply with the security obligation of the regulation.”

The EDPB’s view is being articulated at a time when, as noted, a number of nations led by the United States (US) continue to press technology companies to allow them access to communications, apps, platforms, and devices that are encrypted. Last year, the US, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (the so-called Five Eyes nations) met and claimed in one of the communiques, the Five Eyes ministers asserted that

We are concerned where companies deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes. This approach puts citizens and society at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to identify and respond to the most harmful illegal content, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorist and extremist material and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, as well as law enforcement agencies’ ability to investigate serious crime.

The five nations contended that “[t]ech 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 Eyes also claimed that “[t]hose companies should also embed the safety of their users in their system designs, enabling them to take action against illegal content…[and] [a]s part of this, companies and Governments must work together to ensure that the implications of changes to their services are well understood and that those changes do not compromise public safety.”

The Five Eyes applauded “approaches like Mark Zuckerberg’s public commitment to consulting Governments on Facebook’s recent proposals to apply end-to-end encryption to its messaging services…[and] [t]hese engagements must be substantive and genuinely influence design decisions.”

The Five Eyes added

We share concerns raised internationally, inside and outside of government, about the impact these changes could have on protecting our most vulnerable citizens, including children, from harm. More broadly, we call for detailed engagement between governments, tech companies, and other stakeholders to examine how proposals of this type can be implemented without negatively impacting user safety, while protecting cyber security and user privacy, including the privacy of victims.

In October 2019, in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, US Attorney General William P. Barr, United Kingdom Home Secretary Priti Patel, Australia’s Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, and then acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan asked “that Facebook does not proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens.” In Facebook’s December 2019 response, Facebook Vice President and WhatsApp Head Will Cathcart and Facebook Vice President and Messenger Head Stan Chudnovsky stated “[c]ybersecurity experts have repeatedly proven that when you weaken any part of an encrypted system, you weaken it for everyone, everywhere…[and] [t]he ‘backdoor’ access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platforms more vulnerable to real-life harm.”

However, one of the Five Eyes nations has already taken legislative action to force technology companies and individuals cooperate with law enforcement investigations in ways that could threaten encryption. In December 2018, Australia enacted the “Telecommunications and Other Legislation (Assistance and Access) Act 2018” (TOLA). As the Office of Australia’s Information Commissioner (OAIC) wrote of TOLA, “[t]he powers permitted under the Act have the potential to significantly weaken important privacy rights and protections under the Privacy Act…[and] [t]he encryption technology that can obscure criminal communications and pose a threat to national security is the same technology used by ordinary citizens to exercise their legitimate rights to privacy.”

In a related development, this week, Australia’s Independent National Security Legislation Monitor (INSLM) issued its report on “Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act 2018” (TOLA). The Parliamentary  Joint  Committee on Intelligence and Security had requested that the INSLM review the statute, and so INSLM engaged in a lengthy review, including input from the public. As explained in the report’s preface, the “INSLM independently reviews the operation, effectiveness and implications of national  security  and  counter-terrorism  laws;  and  considers  whether  the  laws  contain  appropriate  protections  for  individual  rights,  remain  proportionate  to  terrorism or national security threats, and remain necessary.”

INSLM claimed

In this report I reject the notion that there is a binary choice that must be made between the effectiveness of agencies’ surveillance powers in the digital age on the one hand and the security of the internet on the other. Rather, I conclude that what is necessary is a law which allows agencies to meet technological challenges, such as those caused by encryption, but in a proportionate way and with proper rights protection. Essentially this can be done by updating traditional safeguards to meet those same technological challenges – notably, those who are trusted to authorise intrusive search and surveillance powers must be able to understand the technological context in which those powers operate, and their consequences. If, but only if, the key recommendations I set out in this report in this regard are adopted, TOLA will be such a law.

INSLM stated “[t]he essential effects of TOLA are as follows:

a. Schedule 1 gives police and intelligence agencies new powers to agree or require significant industry assistance from communications providers.

b. Schedules 2, 3 and 4 update existing powers and, in some cases, extended them to new agencies. c. Schedule 5 gives the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) significant new powers to seek and receive both voluntary and compulsory assistance.

INSLM found

  • In relation to Schedule 1, for the reasons set out in greater detail in the report, Technical Assistance Notice (TANs) and Technical Capability Notice (TCNs) should be authorised by a body which is independent of the issuing agency or government. These are powers designed to compel a Designated Communications Provider (DCP) to reveal private information or data of its customers and therefore the usual practice of independent authorisation should apply.
  • I am satisfied that the computer access warrant and associated powers conferred by Schedule 2 are both necessary and proportionate, subject to some amendments.
  • I am generally satisfied that the powers conferred by Schedules 3 and 4 are both necessary and proportionate, but there are some matters that should be addressed and further monitored.
  • I have concluded that Schedule 5 should be amended to limit its breadth and clarify its scope.

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