Guess which government doesn't want you to use end-to-end encryption
From a privacy point of view, there is much to love about end-to-end encryption, as employed by the likes of WhatsApp. But while users may delight in the knowledge that their communication is free from surveillance, there are some groups that have a different opinion.
Law enforcement agencies have long-complained that E2E encryption stands in the way of investigations, and serves to complicate evidence gathering. Many governments are of the same mind, and it's not just those that are traditionally regarded as totalitarian by other countries. Governments from ostensibly democratic countries are opposed to E2E encryption, and some are using underhand tactics in negative PR campaigns.
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One government that has been vocal in its disapproval of end-to-end encryption is the government in the UK. The ruling Conservative Party has made no secret of its dislike of encrypted messaging services, and now the government is launching a campaign to undermine confidence and stir up a mistrust of services that do offer end-to-end encryption.
The UK government is funding and backing a campaign called No Place to Hide. While the text for the initiative proclaims, "we are not opposed to end-to-encryption in principle and fully support the importance of strong user privacy", it goes a very low way to proving otherwise.
Despite having previously made no attempt to hide or disguise its contempt for end-to-end encryption and the barriers it places in the way of monitoring people's communications, the UK government is using child abuse to tug on heart strings and gain support for non-encrypted services.
The blurb reads:
Our campaign is calling for social media companies to work with us to find a solution that protects privacy, without putting children at even greater risk.
Child sex abusers use social media platforms to exploit children and share images and videos of children being abused with other offenders.
Right now, some social media companies can detect child sexual abuse material being shared on their platforms and report it to law enforcement. This plays an important part in stopping child sex abusers, and these companies deserve to be praised for this.
But some are planning to introduce end-to-end-encryption, which scrambles messages so that only the sender and receiver can see what is being shared.
This means they will no longer be able to detect child sexual abuse on their platforms and therefore won’t be able to report it.
If these plans go ahead an estimated 14 million reports of suspected child sexual abuse online could be lost each year. This could have a catastrophic impact on child safety.
The name of the campaign comes from the idea that the government is telling social media platforms: "don't give child sex abusers a place to hide."
A spokesperson said that the widespread availability of E2E encryption would be akin to "turning the lights off on the ability to identify child sex abusers online".
The campaign says that:
We want social media companies to confirm they will not implement end-to-end encryption until they have the technology in place to ensure children will not be put at greater risk as a result.
This is clearly a near-impossible task. Just as no ISP can say that its services won't be used to access the Dark Web and engage in illegal activity, so app developers and social platforms also cannot make any guarantees about how their services may or may not be used.
As ever, there is the issue of weighing pros against cons. The UK government is using a highly emotive argument in an attempt to strengthen its view, but misses the wider point that people generally greatly benefit whenever end-to-end encryption is present.
More information is available at the campaign website.