France, Germany want limits on encryption to fight terrorism

PARIS: France and Germany pushed Tuesday for Europe-wide rules requiring messaging apps such as Telegram to limit encryption to help governments monitor communications among suspected extremists.

Privacy advocates argue that encryption is essential to online security, notably for banking transactions. But encrypted apps are also increasingly used by extremists to hide their location, coordinate operations and trade weapons and sex slaves.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said French authorities have detained three people this month with “clear attack plans,” but that police need better tools to monitor messaging apps the way they can tap phones. He said the three were among seven people detained with suspected links to extremist networks, without elaborating.

He and German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said they’re not pushing to ban encrypted services, but to work with companies that offer such apps or services to ensure they can’t be abused by violent extremists. They want EU leaders to discuss a Europe-wide policy controlling encryption at a summit in Bratislava, Slovakia, next month.

But they didn’t elaborate on how exactly companies should limit encryption, and Cazeneuve acknowledged that his government doesn’t even have any interlocutors at some companies.

He specifically mentioned concerns about Telegram, an encrypted app used around the world. Islamic State extremists are among its many users — including a 19-year-old who attacked a Catholic church in Normandy last month and allegedly posted about his impending plans on the app.

Telegram says on its website that it blocks terrorist-related public channels, but doesn’t intervene in private chats among participants.

U.S. authorities have also pressed tech companies to work with the government against extremist activity online, with varying degrees of success.

After deadly attacks in France and Germany this summer, the two interior ministers also stressed the need for a unified European system for sharing police information.

“The fight against terrorism is the first priority for Europeans,” Cazeneuve said. “It’s imperative that police have a single interface.”

They said Europe’s border-free zone should require visitors to register on an electronic database ahead of time, via a system like the ESTA database for visitors to the U.S.