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Encryption is anti-terrorism’s biggest problem, says Europol chief

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One of Europe’s top police investigators has told the BBC that encrypted communications are the biggest problem in tackling terrorism across the globe. Europol director Rob Wainwright, speaking to the 5 Live Investigates program, said secure messaging apps and “dark net” platforms were enabling criminals and terrorists to escape detection.

“[Encrypted communications have] become perhaps the biggest problem for the police and the security service authorities in dealing with the threats from terrorism,” said Wainwright. “It’s changed the very nature of counterterrorist work from one that has been traditionally reliant on having good monitoring capability of communications to one that essentially doesn’t provide that anymore.”

Related: Professional-grade encryption for the average person

The police chief’s comments are sure to add to the debate over the balance between intelligence gathering and the privacy of ordinary citizens. Many users and tech companies are eager to create secure messaging environments where messages can’t be monitored — especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations — but this also means that those plotting crimes or acts of terror have somewhere to communicate undetected.

Wainwright went on to express dissatisfaction with manufacturers such as Apple who create secured and encrypted devices that law enforcement agencies can’t access. “It only adds to our problems in getting to the communications of the most dangerous people that are abusing the Internet,” he said. “[Tech firms] are doing it, I suppose, because of a commercial imperative driven by what they perceive to be consumer demand for greater privacy of their communications.”

The BBC also spoke to a representative of TechUK, the British technology trade association, who was much more in favor of encrypted platforms. “From huge volumes of financial transactions to personal details held on devices, the security of digital communications fundamentally underpins the UK economy,” said the spokesman. “With the right resources and cooperation between the security agencies and technology companies, alongside a clear legal framework for that cooperation, we can ensure both national security and economic security are upheld.”

Spy agencies in both the United States and the United Kingdom have come under fire for intercepting and monitoring an unnecessarily large number of communications. With technology companies and users insisting on some level of privacy, and governments and law enforcement insisting on some kind of access, the issue looks a long way from being resolved.

[Header image: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com]