U.S. policy-makers and several close foreign allies issued a statement this weekend calling for technology providers to provide access for governments and law enforcement to encrypted data and protected systems. But based on the failure of numerous similar U.S. government entreaties to the tech sector in recent years, the latest effort likely won’t end up moving the needle on the issue.

In an October 11 release signed off on by the Department of Justice, and government officials from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, the governments called on tech providers to “embed the safety of the public in system designs” in ways that will facilitate government and law enforcement prosecution of criminals, including access to unencrypted content and locked devices.

The five nations signing the agreement are known as the “Five Eyes” alliance that have signed a treaty for joint cooperation on signals intelligence.

For the past several years – and going back to at least 2015 in the case of a Federal suit against Apple seeking to crack open a locked device used by a perpetrator of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. – tech providers have presented a united front opposing what some have said is the government’s request to build “back doors” into their systems for the benefit of law enforcement. Creating such avenues, they argue, will only make systems less secure.

Citing terrorism and criminal threats – including from online child sexual predators – the governments said in their Oct. 11 statement that “there is increasing consensus across governments and international institutions that action must be taken.”

“While encryption is vital and privacy and cyber security must be protected, that should not come at the expense of wholly precluding law enforcement, and the tech industry itself, from being able to act against the most serious illegal content and activity online,” the governments said.

“We are committed to working with industry to develop reasonable proposals that will allow technology companies and governments to protect the public and their privacy, defend cyber security and human rights and support technological innovation,” the governments said. “While this statement focuses on the challenges posed by end-to-end encryption, that commitment applies across the range of encrypted services available, including device encryption, custom encrypted applications and encryption across integrated platforms.”

“We reiterate that data protection, respect for privacy and the importance of encryption, as technology changes and global Internet standards are developed, remain at the forefront of each state’s legal framework,” they said. “However, we challenge the assertion that public safety cannot be protected without compromising privacy or cyber security. We strongly believe that approaches protecting each of these important values are possible and strive to work with industry to collaborate on mutually agreeable solutions.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.