Don’t believe knee-jerk warnings: secure, encrypted communication isn’t a threat, it’s vital.
Again, in the wake of a terror attack, a government official (in this case, UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd) has said that end-to-end encrypted services like WhatsApp are a dire threat to our safety, a place for evil terrorists to hide. She says “it was “completely unacceptable” that the government could not read messages on the service via some sort of “back door” access.
This is a specious argument and people need to know why.
Secure communication channels are actually vital for those living under repressive regimes. They are a “safe space” where ordinary citizens and activists can speak freely.
The “backdoor” concept – which means weakening the strong security of such a system in order to make it possible for a government agency to access messages if they wish to – undercuts the entire concept of secure communication. Plus, any security expert (as opposed to a politician) will tell you it’s not possible. Not without effectively destroying the usefulness of the system for those who actually need it.
How do you know which government has been granted access to your messages? How do you ensure that the murderous regime you’re living under hasn’t gained access to this “back door”? Because they will. And they won’t send a search warrant. You’ll just disappear in the night because of your non-approved text message questioning the powers that be.
Does encryption protect more lives than it might cost? Depends. Police access to messaging wouldn’t automatically mean prevention of attacks. But a secure channel of communication verifiably offers an ongoing safe space for journalists and citizens who are challenging corrupt regimes to communicate with each other.
The trouble is, government security types (like anyone with a pure law-enforcement approach) would never ask that sort of question – they simply go straight for the “dire threat” argument.
Here’s some of Rudd’s statements with some words substituted: “journalists” or “citizens” for “terrorists”, and “safe” for “hide”. How reassuring does it sound now?
“There should be no place for journalists to be safe. We need to make sure that these organizations don’t provide a safe place for citizens to communicate with each other.”
The aftermath of a terrorist attack is always the time when those in power try to use fear to restrict our freedoms. It’s just scare tactics. The conversation about encryption needs to be about far more than its supposed role as a protector of terrorists. It needs to be recognized as a vital tool for ordinary citizens, something that supports our right to privacy – something that we should not give up so readily.