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Open backdoors into apps and adversaries will use them too

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This week I read the news that my government was trying to make it harder for me to communicate securely. That would be a normal occurrence in China, where online privacy has deteriorated every year I’ve lived here. But this latest blow came from a different source: the UK government. The justice departments of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance — the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — have asked once more for tech companies to give them “lawful access” to encrypted communications.

In other words, these governments want backdoors into encrypted messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Signal. The term “backdoor” has been popularised more recently by the Trump administration’s campaign against Chinese tech, accusing Huawei and other companies of leaving backdoors for Chinese government access.

As a foreign correspondent in China, I would much prefer Boris Johnson to be reading my private messages than Xi Jinping, although neither prospect is very comforting. But it is unproductive to say things could be worse in China; that is barely any comfort, either, for citizens living in the west. There is a different link we need to explore between UK and Chinese government backdoors: that bad domestic cyber policy decreases our ability to defend against foreign adversaries.

Any form of surveillance creates a pool of data that bad actors can try to access. Breaking end-to-end encryption, in particular, leaves gaping vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit.

The reason for this is in the otherwise tight design of such programs. An app such as Signal encrypts your messages so that they can only be accessed using a private key, or password, that is generated on your phone and is sealed there. Signal’s servers and programmers can’t access the key and use it to decrypt your messages as they flow through the internet. The only person who can access it is the person in control of the phone, the message’s final “end point”: hence the term end-to-end encryption.

The efficacy of end-to-end encryption means that everyone, from banks to ecommerce sites to healthcare systems, relies on it to protect their users. Without access to the private key, the number of calculations it would take to break open a well-encrypted message would take longer than a lifetime.

As a result, backdoors into end-to-end encrypted communications usually require app designers to produce extra keys that are given to law enforcement agencies. But unlike the keys stored on a device, these extra keys are designed to be shared. Their existence increases dramatically the chance that a key gets leaked. Once a key is leaked, all the contents of the encrypted messages can be read.

In general, if a security flaw exists, it is only a matter of time before someone finds it. Even tools built by government agencies such as the NSA have ended up in the hands of Chinese, North Korean and Russian hackers. Creating a master set of keys to access all encrypted communications would mean building a nuclear internet bomb without the ability to guard it.

Foreign spies have abused “lawful intercept” backdoors in the past. One high-profile example comes from the telecoms industry — the same market Huawei dominates, to the concern of the Five Eyes governments. In what has become known as “Greek Watergate” or the “Athens Affair”, in 2004-05, the prime minister of Greece and more than 100 high-ranking officials and executives had their phonelines hacked. Someone had taken advantage of the lawful intercept ability embedded into the Ericsson equipment used by Vodafone. The episode also involved the apparent suicide of a Vodafone engineer.

Once you lose trust over security, it is difficult to get it back. People would stop conducting commercial transactions, for example, over platforms with backdoors once those backdoors have been exploited. Then they would shift to the newer platforms that spring up — before the government clamps down on them. And enforcement would be ugly: if Facebook continued to hold out against installing backdoors, would the UK ban WhatsApp?

We must make our systems robust against a world in which bad actors, such as China’s spy agencies, will always be a threat. It is pointless to keep fretting over the rise of China — we need to prepare to coexist. To do so, governments should make their domestic cyber policies consistent with their international objectives. There is still, broadly speaking, one global internet: we have to defend it. 

Yuan Yang is the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief

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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation

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India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”



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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China

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America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.



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