France, Germany Call for European Decryption Law

France’s and Germany’s Interior Minister are urging the EU to consider implementing a law to get companies to decrypt encrypted communications.

The United States is months removed from this spring’s Apple vs. FBI debacle, but the debate around encryption is just beginning to play out in Europe.

A joint press conference held Tuesday in Paris between Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve marked perhaps the most public declaration by a government figure that there be some sort of decryption law on the books.

Contending that security agencies in their countries should have the right to access encrypted data, the two asked that their proposals be heard next month at a European Commission meeting.

Maizière and Cazeneuve urged the commission, the executive body of the European Union, to study the possibility of outlining a legislative act that could be imposed on any company offering products or telecommunication services in the EU.

“If such legislation were passed, it would allow us, at European level, to impose obligations on operators that uncooperative disclose such to remove illegal content or decrypt messages, exclusively in the context of criminal investigations,” Cazeneuve said [via Google Translate] Tuesday.

The two initially announced their plans to launch an international initiative designed to crack down on the use of encrypted apps – Cazeneuve told reporters at the time that encryption was “a central issue in the fight against terrorism” – earlier this month.

On Tuesday, the interior ministers said the move would collectively raise the region’s level of safety, especially after Germany and France have been confronted by terrorist threats in the last year. French intelligence agencies have famously had difficulty cracking apps like WhatsApp and Telegram that have become increasingly used by Islamic extremists.

Cazeneuve mentioned Telegram in particular, saying exchanges made with the app must be able to be used as part of court proceedings “to be identified and used as evidence by the investigation and magistrates services.”

The men cited the flurry of recent terrorist attacks in the region, including last autumn’s Paris attacks that saw 90 people killed and Nice’s Bastille Day truck attack that led to the death of 86 people. Germany has had troubles of its own; last month four people were seriously injured on a train near Würzburg and a bomb killed one person at a restaurant in Ansbach. The Interior Ministers contend that the terrorists behind the attacks have been using encrypted apps to obscure their messages.

Leaders from 27 European Council member states are slated to meet in Bratislava, Slovakia on Sept. 16 for an informal meeting, although it’s unknown whether de Maizière’s and Cazeneuve’s discussion around encryption will make it onto the agenda.

In an editorial in Le Monde this week, Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, President of the National Commission on Informatics and Liberties, France’s data protection authority, echoed some of Cazeneuve’s sentiments but praised encryption. Falque-Pierrotin agreed that robust encryption can complicate the work of investigators but also insisted that the technology is essential to the general public’s digital security.

“It is through encryption that we can make a bank transfer safely. It is through encryption that we can store our health data in a shared medical file (DMP) online. It is also thanks to this tool that investigations on “Panama Papers ” were possible. For companies, encryption is now the best protection against economic espionage,” she wrote.

The back and forth, of course, mirrors the ethical tug of war that took place between Apple and the FBI over encryption earlier this year after the agency unsuccessfully asked for the company’s help unlocking the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone. The FBI ultimately paid a third party more than $1.3 million to break into the iPhone, ending the tussle, and the two sides have since vowed to work together to find a compromise to the debate.

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