Top 10 crime, national security and law stories of 2021

The intelligence services and the government have become increasingly vocal in campaigns for access to the contents of the public’s encrypted messages on Facebook, WhatsApp and other encrypted messaging services.

Government and industry attempts to develop a technical solution that will both preserve the integrity of communications and allow the state to bulk scan messages for criminal content have floundered.

Apple suspended its plans to install software on smart phones to automatically scan and report child abuse material in messages before they are encrypted. Top computer scientists and cryptographers had condemned the scheme as unworkable, vulnerable to abuse and a step towards bulk surveillance without warrant or suspicion. The former CEO of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, weighed-in to argue that end-to-end encryption must be permitted unless a technical compromise can be found that is acceptable to the tech industry and cryptography experts.

In practice, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have turned to “equipment interference” (also known as Computer Network Exploitation or hacking), to bypass end-to-end encryption altogether.

Police forces in the UK, Europe and the US collaborated in three major operations to hack into encrypted phone networks used by organised crime groups, leading to thousands of arrests world-wide.

The use of equipment interference to access encrypted phone messages has far reaching implications for the future use of intercept evidence in court.

For the past 65 years, the UK has banned the use of intercept evidence in court hearings. Following a legal decision in February, intercept evidence obtained through “equipment interference” can now be placed before juries. 

1. EncroChat: Appeal court finds ‘digital phone tapping’ admissible in criminal trials

Judges have decided that communications collected by French and Dutch police from the encrypted phone network EncroChat using software “implants” are admissible evidence in British courts.

UK law prohibits law enforcement agencies from using evidence obtained from interception in criminal trials, but three judges found on 5 February 2021 that material…