OTTAWA – The ability of terrorists to shield their communications from police and spies will be a focus for the Five Eyes intelligence alliance at a closed-door meeting in Ottawa this month.
Public security ministers and attorneys general from Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand will gather with their intelligence officials for highly sensitive talks during the last week of June.
The secret sessions follow a spate of terrorist attacks in England that underscore the international alliance’s concerns about the threat of homegrown extremism, including the possibility of attacks by fighters returning from foreign conflicts.
Security officials are worried about the widespread availability of encryption tools and applications that can allow extremists to more easily communicate without their phone calls and texts being intercepted.
Civil libertarians argue the right of law-abiding people to communicate in private should not be sacrificed in the name of fighting terrorism by giving authorities the means to crack encryption or build back doors into security programs.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this week the remarkable technologies billions of people rely on every day – whether it be the iPhone, Twitter or Facebook – are also being used by those who seek to do harm.
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“We need even stronger co-operation from the big social media and messaging platforms in the fight against terrorism and the extremism which spawns it,” Turnbull told the House of Representatives.
He said Australia would use the Ottawa meeting to determine what more can be done with the communications and technology industries to ensure terrorists and organized criminals cannot operate with impunity in “ungoverned digital spaces” online.
The first Five Eyes ministerial meeting was held in 2013. It provides a chance for the allies to discuss key subjects of common interest including cybersecurity and radicalization to violence. The so-called Quintet of attorneys general has been meeting annually since 2009 to talk about legal issues related to international crime-fighting and security.
“These are countries which work very, very closely together. They share a lot of intelligence. Their people are interacting all the time,” said Greg Fyffe, a former executive director of the international assessment staff at the Privy Council Office.
The Canadian meeting is likely to address the dicey issue of intelligence leaks, given Britain’s recent displeasure about the U.S. divulging details of the investigation into the May 22 bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester that killed 22 people, said Wesley Wark, a security expert at the University of Ottawa.
Wark also expects officials to examine influence operations carried out by Moscow amid evidence of interference in the last U.S. election.
However, allies are unlikely to openly voice concerns about U.S. President Donald Trump’s disconcerting willingness to share intelligence secrets with Russia, Wark said.
“I’m sure it is the elephant in the room, but it’ll stay the elephant in the room, if you like, because that’s really just too political and sensitive a topic.”
Turnbull told MPs this week the effort to prevent terrorists from shielding their communications is not about “creating or exploiting back doors as some privacy advocates continue to say despite constant reassurance from us.”
“It is about collaboration with and assistance from industry in the pursuit of public safety.”
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In Canada, a majority of participants in recent federal consultations opposed giving government the capacity to intercept personal communications, even if a court authorizes the interception, and were against any moves to weaken encryption technology.
However, there was “a strong alternative view” that law enforcement faces crucial delays and roadblocks that are impeding investigations, a summary of the consultations said.
Those who supported this view said investigators need court-authorized, timely access to basic subscriber information, both online and on digital devices, to ensure authorities are “best able to investigate criminal activity and keep Canadians safe.”