Encryption and drones: German BKA wants more special technology for EU police

While end-to-end encryption should be generally weakened, Europol is developing new secure communication applications for the police. Some of the measures are part of the „European Police Partnership“ proclaimed by the German EU Presidency. This includes the project „WhatsApp for law enforcement officers“.

The German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) is leading a new Europol project on encrypted exchange between European police authorities, a EU document published by Statewatch says. Among other things, the initiative deals with lessons learned from the COVID 19 pandemic, which in many cases also means a switch from face-to-face meetings to video telephony for cross-border police cooperation. Europol has therefore set up a „Core Group for Secure Communications“, which is led by the BKA. It should examine existing methods for their effectiveness, identify possible gaps and make proposals to bridge them.

With its „Virtual Command Post“ application, Europol already provides a secure channel for immediate joint operations, through which personal data is also communicated. For emergency communication in the event of terrorist attacks or major police operations, Europol has recently launched the „Quick Response for Operational Centres“ (QROC) project. For questions related to COVID-19, Europol will initially set up an Internet forum called „Virtual Requests out of Mandate“ (vRoom), which is not intended for the exchange of operational information.

„Innovation laboratory“ with four priorities

The project now led by the BKA, is the first initiative of the newly founded „Innovation Laboratory“ at Europol, whose concept of „core groups“ the BKA played a decisive role in shaping and presenting it on 4 November 2020 at the meeting of the heads of Europol national units. The „Innovation Laboratory“ consists of four components. Firstly, Europol is firstly to launch further „core groups“ on innovative technologies according to the German model and examine their usefulness for cross-border police exchange. Corresponding proposals can come from the EU Member States, which then also take over the leadership or transfer it to Europol.

Secondly, Europol should act as an observatory on „risks, threats and opportunities“ of new technologies for law enforcement. Thirdly, the Police Agency is to launch „Networks of Innovators“ on selected topics, involving mainly commercial operators. These new networks will be supported by existing structures, including the „law enforcement practitioners“ who have come together in the police network ENLETS.

Fourthly, Europol will carry out its own research into new technologies, for which it now operates an „EU Innovation Centre for Internal Security“. The department is referred to as a „hub“ in English language documents. Europol is to ensure that all actors in the field of internal security are involved in important projects, including border and customs authorities. Among the first projects of the „Innovation Centre“ are the use of drones and the search for ways to weaken end-to-end encrypted connections and 5G telephony.

„Europol Strategy 2020+“

In the „Core Group for Secure Communication“ led by the BKA, the aim is to simplify not only video telephony but also the use of mobile telephones by the police. A project for the introduction of an encrypted messenger is entitled „WhatsApp for law enforcement officers“. It will be a simple to install and easy to use application with „continuous state-of-the-art transport encryption“, communicating only via government servers where possible. For details, the BKA plans to organise a workshop with interested authorities soon. It will also deal with possible investments in the police network infrastructure.

The new activities of the „Innovation Laboratory“ are part of the „Europol Strategy 2020+“. Under its current Presidency, the German government has launched several projects for a „European Police Partnership“. On the agenda are the Europe-wide retrieval of police investigation files, EU-wide access to facial images and a common working definition of so-called „Gefährder“.

The German Ministry of the Interior has drafted conclusions on the weakening of messenger-based end-to-end encryption, which are to be adopted by the EU interior ministers on 4 December. The project has been criticized by numerous groups and associations, most recently the German section of Reporters Without Borders and Netzwerk Recherche have commented on it. „A functioning encryption that creates an exception only for the security authorities is not conceivable and not possible,“ an open letter states.

Image by Nguyen Tung on Unsplash.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.