- The end-to-end encryption apps provide surety of privacy of users' shared data
- The apps also prevent access of all the third parties, including Google
- WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, Silent Phone, Signal, Threema are some widely-used apps worldwide
- Police struggle to run dozens of cases thanks to the use of encrypted apps by criminals
A large gang of robbers with a countrywide network have been committing robbery in different districts, particularly in the homes of Bangladeshi migrant workers, for at least 10 years. Many involved in the racket are also convicted in different cases and are absconding.
Police have struggled for long to nab the ring but failed repeatedly; they even did not find any means to trace the gang members. However, they were able to arrest one of them a few days ago.
The law enforcement agency then identified that the gang used encrypted apps such as Whatsapp and Telegram, which provide extra privacy and end-to-end encryption to users, for their internal communication. The gang did not even use valid phone numbers or other communication tools – which police usually trace or monitor to find criminals.
Like the gang, many criminals are now using such apps for communication and avoiding all the popular means to escape from the police. At the same time, the use of such apps by offenders is soaring alarmingly day by day.
On 6 September last year, the Anti-Terrorism Unit of the police in a drive arrested an active member of Ansarullah Bangla Team, a banned militant organisation, who was found using an encrypted app to expand the outfit's network. Another militant who was planning an attack on Chattogram's book fair was arrested last month in possession of such an app.
Besides, many are committing cyber crimes and money laundering using end-to-end encrypted apps, according to the police. With black webs or forgery, all of them manage fake or foreign phone numbers to open their accounts on the apps. Thus their real identity also remains hidden on the app platforms.
"The global encrypted app companies are serving their subscribers with the surety of maintaining strict privacy. But criminals are misusing the feature," said Md Kamruzzaman, assistant inspector general and spokesperson of the Bangladesh Police.
"Naturally, the companies cannot understand who misuse the service to commit crimes. If we had cooperative relations with the companies, we could seek information about particular users," he told The Business Standard.
Not only security officials of Bangladesh but also those around the world have been facing the challenge – combating encrypting app-based crimes, Kamaruzzaman said, adding that they were now trying to establish communication with global tech companies.
Several other senior police officials, seeking anonymity, told TBS that they are currently struggling to run dozens of cases mostly related to militant activities, drug deals and cybercrimes, thanks to the use of encrypted apps.
Besides, criminals are constantly switching from one app to another for their communication, which is another challenge, they added.
The end-to-end encryption apps usually prevent the access of all the third parties, including Google, to texts, files, voices or other documents shared between the users. The software converts data into scrambled text which can only be decoded with secret keys – created on sender and receiver devices. There is almost zero possibility of leaking the data.
WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram, Silent Phone, Signal, Threema are some widely-used encrypted apps worldwide.
Police officials said with the advancement of information technology, crimes using the internet have increased significantly in the country, along with other parts of the world. Meanwhile, the police also have enhanced their capabilities, despite being late in confronting the issue.
Now, several social media sites, including Facebook, are cooperating with the Bangladesh law enforcement agency and, in some cases, the government has succeeded in preventing rumours from being spread in the virtual world, they added.
However, the police are yet to find any response from encrypted apps service providers. As a result, they are struggling to find criminals using the apps.
Meanwhile, the government has drafted a regulatory framework to govern digital platform operations in the country, titled "Regulations for Digital, Social Media, and OTT Platforms", which proposes making the appointment of local agents of internet-based platforms in the country mandatory.
Besides, they will have to have in-person contact addresses and a system of receiving complaints and a settlement of the complaints.
However, human rights activists are criticising the regulation, fearing that it could be abused in harassing people and suppressing the voices of people.