New EU digital commissioner fails to clarify position on encryption


The European Commission's (EC) incoming digital commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, has failed to share specifics of her position on encryption in a hearing which confirms her into the role.

Soon to be in charge of the EC's digital economy and society portfolio, she was asked questions by MEPs on the topic in a two-and-a-half hour long session but failed to make her position clear.

Encryption has been a very hot topic recently. The UK government for one has often called for ways to bypass encryption as it sees it as giving terrorists a “space space to hide”.

Other countries are looking to do the same, for much of the same reasons, including France, Spain, and joined last week by Germany.

Earlier this week, the European Parliament's civil liberties and justice committee unveiled plans as part of the ePrivacy regulation to enforce end-to-end encryption on electronic communications.

Not wishing to step on the toes of law enforcement, the committee said it recognised the level of personal data EU citizens were sharing via such communications, such as private medical records and online banking statements, so decided that communications deserved a strong level of encryption to ensure no information is lost.

Commissioner Gabriel was a member of the same committee many years during her time in the EU Parliament. She is expected to play an influential role in the discussions on this, so her words were watched carefully.

The proposals brought forward by the committee will need the support of the EU Parliament and Council to make it into law.

Gabriel was questioned on whether she wishes to see digital services have this extra level of protection; she initially appeared to be on the side of encryption, saying, “At the moment it's important to have encryption,” adding “It's a guarantee for security without any possible backdoors. We've already seen member states' initiatives where they've used the deciphering of the encryption — and we've seen the results of that. So we need to move forward. Trust, confidence and security for citizens will come from a number of measures, but that's a principle where I propose that we move along the same lines.”

When questioned again on whether there will be no government backdoors, she seemed to backtrack saying, “Legal access can only take place within very strict conditions, as we have for other legislative measures. And only where it concerns reasons of national security of the highest rank.

“It's important because we need to give our own institutions the means to move forward, but we also need to make sure that those very same instruments are not being used by others for purposes other than the positive purposes that we had in mind.”

The current EC vice president Andrus Ansip, who is the current commissioner of the digital economy and society brief agrees. Ansip tweeted in March that “weakening encryption is not an option” — and has rejected the idea of government backdoors.

However, when it comes to encryption he also said the interests of law enforcement are “not black and white” — also demonstrating an ambiguous view.


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