By Mark Hosenball
LONDON (Reuters) - Former government officials and privacy campaigners are questioning demands by "Five Eyes" security ministers that high-tech communications systems should remain accessible to spies and official investigators.
A meeting in London of security and law enforcement officials from the Five Eyes group expressed concern this week that high-tech companies were moving to "deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes."
The group comprises the U.S, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
They said that 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."
Priti Patel, Britain's new interior minister, said that Five Eyes governments were united that tech firms should not develop their systems and services, including end-to-end encryption, "in ways that empower criminals or put vulnerable people at risk."
Ben Wizner, an expert in national security law with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the anti-encryption push by security officials, including William Barr, President Donald Trump's Attorney General, who attended the London meeting, in part appear to be directed at Apple, which clashed with the FBI over efforts to decrypt the mobile phone of a mass shooter in California in 2015.
Wizner said that any access mechanism that tech companies were required to put into encrypted systems would give U.S. and allied authorities access to private message traffic and that foreign governments and spy agencies, such as Russia's SVR or FSB, would have legitimate cause to insist that they be allowed to use the same access mechanisms.
A former senior European security official said the Five Eyes language regarding the need for government access in telecoms systems was "very general" at best.
The former official noted that one proposal floated recently by some British officials would not leave open a "back door" for official surveillance in encrypted systems but rather would provide for a wiretap equivalent by tapping a device at one end of the conversation after the message had been decrypted.
"It doesn't mean weakening encryption, just going around it," the ex-official said of this proposal. But this plan has been sharply attacked by the tech industry.
Mark Warner, deputy chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, said there is no simple approach to how authorities deal with encryption.
His spokeswoman said Warner "believes that this is an issue that requires a very nuanced discussion, recognizing the enormous value that encryption has for our national security, and the need to equip law enforcement with tools that allow them to use technology to their benefit, rather than seeing technology as an obstacle."
(This story deletes erroneous word "not" in seventh paragraph)
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball; editing by Stephen Addison)