Great Britain

MI5 chief asks tech firms for 'exceptional access' to encrypted messages

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.

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.

The result, he says, is that cyberspace has become “a wild west, unregulated, inaccessible to authorities”, as he repeated calls that have been made by Britain’s spy agencies in recent years for special access to encrypted messages.

Parker called on the tech firms to “use the brilliant technologists you’ve got” to answer a question: “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?”

Spy agencies and technology companies have been battling over how much access to provide to encrypted communications, because current technology means they are otherwise extremely difficult to crack.

In November 2018, Ian Levy, the technical director of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, proposed that tech companies send a copy of encrypted messages when requested following a warrant to spy agencies, a technique known as the “ghost protocol”.

That was rejected six months later by a group of technology companies, including Apple and Whatsapp, which said it would risk misleading users because it would secretly turn “a two-way conversation into a group chat where the government is the additional participant”.

Parker’s intervention demonstrates how concerned the security agencies remain by the issue, and comes after the controversy generated by the Edward Snowden revelations, in which UK and US spy agencies were forced to admit how far they had been able to gain access to older communications technologies.

Popular messaging services available on any mobile phone advertise that they secure messages using end-to-end encryption of the type that, in theory, is very difficult for law enforcement to access without knowledge of the encoding key.

Parker’s demand comes in an interview as part of an ITV documentary about the work of the domestic intelligence agency MI5. In it, he acknowledges that it is not possible to stop every terror plot.

He says he tells ministers that in the event of an attack, “the very high likelihood is that it will be done by somebody who appears in our records somehow”. But he adds that “there are thousands of them and we cannot – cannot – monitor closely what all those people are doing all the time”.

The agency has more than 20,000 persons of interest on its database, and is responsible for monitoring and preventing Islamist threat, dissident paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and, since 2018, far-right extremism.

Parker is due to step down in the spring at the end of his statutory term. He acknowledged that the toughest point in his time as director general was in 2017, when there was a run of terror attacks, including at Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.

Asked if he felt he was not in control of the security situation at the time, Parker said: “Well we’re not in control of it ever, are we? To be in control would mean that somehow we could manage this whole landscape and stop everything. We can’t. We can’t do that.”