UK intelligence agency begs tech firms for 'exceptional access' to encrypted messages

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What you need to know

  • UK intelligence agency MI5 has called for "exceptional access" to encrypted messages.
  • Sir Andrew Parker said it was "increasingly mystifying" that intelligence agencies are not able to easily read secret messages.
  • He thinks tech companies should investigate providing end-to-end encryption whilst also giving access when there is a compelling case to do so.

The director general of MI5 has called on technology companies to give spy agencies 'exceptional access' to encrypted messages.

As reported by The Guardian:

MI5's director general has called on technology companies to find a way to allow spy agencies "exceptional access" to encrypted messages, amid fears they cannot otherwise access such communications.Sir Andrew Parker is understood to be particularly concerned about Facebook, which announced plans to introduce powerful end-to-end encryption last March across all the social media firm's services.In an ITV interview to be broadcast on Thursday, Sir Andrew Parker says he has found it "increasingly mystifying" that intelligence agencies like his are not able to easily read secret messages of terror suspects they are monitoring.

Parker claims that cyberspace has become "a wild west, unregulated, inaccessible to authorities". Parker did not mention any company by name, however, the report claims that sources believe Facebook's encryption plans are of particular concern, due to its massive user base and popularity.

Parker said tech firms should "use the brilliant technologists you've got" to find out "Can you provide end-to-end encryption but on an exceptional basis – exceptional basis – where there is a legal warrant and a compelling case to do it, provide access to stop the most serious forms of harm happening?"

The calls echo the sentiment from US agencies who have called for assistance in accessing encrypted messages and devices, notably in the case of the Pensacola airbase shooter, whose two iPhones remain locked despite calls from the FBI that Apple should assist in unlocking them.

According to the report, a spokesperson for Privacy International said:

"The reality is that these big tech platforms are international companies: providing access to UK police would mean establishing a precedent that police around the world could use to compel the platforms to monitor activists and opposition, from Hong Kong to Honduras."

In his interview, Parker admitted that it was not possible to stop every terrorist plot and that it was impossible for MI5 to monitor all of the people on its database all of the time.

The calls could reignite global conversations about encryption, and whether governments and security agencies should be able to access encrypted data, and whether or not that's even possible.

Stephen Warwick
News Editor

Stephen Warwick has written about Apple for five years at iMore and previously elsewhere. He covers all of iMore's latest breaking news regarding all of Apple's products and services, both hardware and software. Stephen has interviewed industry experts in a range of fields including finance, litigation, security, and more. He also specializes in curating and reviewing audio hardware and has experience beyond journalism in sound engineering, production, and design. Before becoming a writer Stephen studied Ancient History at University and also worked at Apple for more than two years. Stephen is also a host on the iMore show, a weekly podcast recorded live that discusses the latest in breaking Apple news, as well as featuring fun trivia about all things Apple. Follow him on Twitter @stephenwarwick9