- The federal governments of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — collectively calling themselves the "Five Eyes" — have issued an intelligence sharing agreement in which they demand that tech companies provide governmental access to citizens' encrypted data, essentially through apps on mobile devices.
- The Five Eyes say the access solutions — basically backdoors for the government to bypass product encryption — is for law enforcement agencies to "lawfully access data" of private citizens for public safety and security.
- The Five Eyes say they have requested access solutions but no tech companies have voluntarily complied, so "[s]hould governments continue to encounter impediments... we may pursue technological, enforcement, legislative or other measures to achieve lawful access solutions."
The Five Eyes quietly released this agreement that could have serious implications for tech companies of all sizes, including giants like Apple, Google and Facebook. The governmental group reports frustration with not being able to access data and messages protected by encryption. This could affect not just social media use but also using mobile apps such as WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, to send and receive encrypted texts, phone calls and video calls.
Five Eyes provided concrete examples of how the public could benefit from the government access, including catching child sex offenders, terrorists and organized crime rings. However the group is vague on how it would protect the rights of the average citizen, who is considered the daily, lawful user of encrypted technologies.
This measure has the potential to affect cities in several ways. First, cities themselves use encrypted technologies to protect their own and citizens' data, and backdoors would likely give the federal government access to municipal data. Second, if the federal government were to gain backdoor access to a citizen's data during an investigation, it might subpoena a city for further information about the person.
A third possible ramification is more long-term and speculative, but it is a possibility nonetheless. If the federal government were to intensify its battle with tech companies over this encryption measure and legally mandate compliance, the public could become alarmed that the information they're sending over these apps no longer is fully protected.
Developing backdoors, regardless of the purpose, creates vulnerability in a product that is sold as being secure through encryption. Backdoors can open the possibility of hacking and abuses. That has the potential to reduce citizen use, which in turn affects tech companies' profitability and long-term sustainability. Suffering tech companies would affect the economic stability of the cities in which they're based, especially tech-heavy cities like San Francisco and Seattle.
While the language in the Five Eyes' document indicates that tech companies' compliance with the access solution request is mandatory, it's actually not legally binding. In order for U.S. companies to be required to comply with such a measure, Congress would have to draft and pass a law. Given Congress' traditional hesitance to get involved in such tech battles, it's unlikely that anything like that would occur in short order.