A child and an adult are both inside a glass box. The adult is starting deliberately at the child as the glass fades to black.
Rather discomforting, right?
This is the image the UK government wants to be engraved into the minds of every British citizen. According to an article published by the Rolling Stone magazine, the government plans to launch a campaign with the aim to “mobilize public opinion against Facebook’s decision to encrypt its Messenger app”. And, to make sure it captures the public’s opinion, the government is deploying tactics of sensationalism, exaggeration and emotion.
This scaremongering is not a first for the UK government, which has been fighting against encryption for quite some time. Back in 2015, former Prime Minister David Cameron, pledged to ban online messaging applications that offer end-to-encryption. Although the ban never happened, since then, the UK has been on a steady course to ensure the government and law enforcement have access to encrypted communications. And, the Online Safety Bill, a legislation aiming to address content moderation practices and platform responsibility, appears to be encryption’s death sentence.
The UK government’s argument is that encryption is an obstacle to ensuring the safety of children. Law enforcement agencies and charities have rallied behind this argument, suggesting that encryption hides millions of reports of child abuse and that end-to-end encrypted communication services are the main vessels for child grooming, child exploitation, sex trafficking and other child-related crimes. These claims create awe and one would hope that they are supported by strong, hard evidence; unfortunately, this is not the case. Although we all suspect that at some level encrypted communication services are used for illegal acts, but so is every technology. It is the nature of humans to use any technology for good and bad. And, the worrying part of the UK’s approach is that it appears disinterested or unwilling to take into consideration the good things that encryption brings.
Privacy, security, trust – these are things that encryption achieves effortlessly. Encryption allows an LGBTQI kid to communicate without fear of bullying or, in many cases, persecution; it ensures that a domestic abuser is able to reach out for support and seek help; it helps activists and whistleblowers to come forward with information that holds governments and businesses accountable, which is the basis of every democracy; it helps all of us to exercise our freedoms and rights without the fear of someone snooping around. Of course, the safety of children is very important, but so is the safety of everyone else. And, without evidence to support that the ‘problem’ will be fixed by just banning encryption, is it really worth it?
The UK government insists it is and for this purpose it has hired M&C Saatchi, involved in a controversial campaign during Brexit, to carry out its campaign. According to reports, the campaign will cost UK tax payers half a million pounds and, according to Jim Killock, Executive Director at the Open Rights Group, it is a “distraction tactic” seeking to manipulate the British public opinion.
However, the truth about encryption is unequivocal: it is a necessary foundation for the internet and for societies. In many ways, encryption is the technical foundation for the trust on the Internet – it promotes freedom of expression, privacy, commerce, user trust, while helping to protect data from bad actors. Regulating encryption in order to hinder criminals communicating confidentially runs the significant risk of making it impossible for law-abiding citizens to protect their data. The main objective of security is to foster confidence in the internet and ensure its economic growth.
In this regard, it becomes a valid question what such a ban will mean for the UK’s economic growth and innovation. In Australia, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Assistance and Access Act (TOLA) 2018, which mandated tech companies to break encrypted traffic so law enforcement could get a peek at the online communication of Australians, is said to have resulted “in significant economic harm for the Australian economy and produce negative spillovers that will amplify that harm globally”.” There is really no reason why things will be different for the UK.
It is important to note that, any technique used to mandate a communications’ provider to undermine encryption or provide false trust arrangements introduces a systemic weakness, which then becomes difficult to rectify. The fact of the matter is that once trust in the Internet is broken, it becomes very difficult to restore it. And, trust is what ultimately drives the use, consumption and creativity in the Internet.
Ten years ago this week, the United States Congress proposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which drew a great deal of criticism about its impact on the internet and human rights. Stakeholders from around the world, civil society, the technical community, businesses and academia, all joined forces against a piece of legislation that would undermine our trust to the internet and our ability to express ourselves without fear. What the UK proposes to do with encryption is no different; it will change the relationship users have with the internet for the worse.
The UK may want to keep children safe, but by banning encryption, it will end up making everyone, including children, unsafe and vulnerable, while turning the UK into one of the most inhospitable internet and innovation hubs in the world. It is time for all of us to rejoice and fight for what is right: our right to a secure and private internet experience.