The Five Eyes nation, along with government representatives from India and Japan, have raised concerns regarding end-to-end encryption and public safety. Their press release talks about the dangers of end-to-end encryption and how it’ll create a zone where no governments or even the companies implementing it, will be able to locate illegal activities.
For the unacquainted, the ‘Five Eyes’ is an intelligence-sharing alliance between the governments of five nations, namely, the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
What is End-to-End Encryption?
If you’re using WhatsApp, you’ll find a note when initiating a chat that reads ‘Messages and calls are end-to-end encrypted’
This prevents hackers and even service providers like WhatsApp or Facebook from reading your conversations. A message is encrypted when it leaves your phone, and decrypted on the receiver’s phone. Simply put, end-to-end encryption means nobody other than the sender and receiver can read the content of a conversation, be it text or media.
And it’s not just WhatsApp, several of the best messenger apps have adopted end-to-end encryption.
Five Eyes And End-To-End Encryption
Intelligence agencies are slowly being pushed into a blind spot with end-to-end encryption. Big tech introduced it as a privacy feature to safeguard user-data, however the governments think otherwise.
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India and Japan have also joined hands with Five Eyes, issuing the statement. The united stance is justified in the name of public safety, especially safeguarding children.
The statement talks about three key points. First is to “Embed the safety of the public in system designs,” which says that the companies should be able to monitor content. Second, it wants the companies to “enable law enforcement access to content in a readable and usable format.”
Thirdly, it asks tech companies to “Engage in consultation with governments and other stakeholders to facilitate legal access.”
The press release refers to UNICEF estimates, that one in three internet users is a child. Civil society organization, WePROTECT also said that Facebook Messenger was responsible for 12 million out of the 18 million reports of CSAM (child sexual abuse material) globally in 2018.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) also stated that if end-to-end encryption is implemented on a platform like Facebook, the CSAM reports are likely to disappear as they won’t be able to track activity.
There’s always an argument that “we’ve got nothing to hide,” and “what will they do with all the data?” Let’s assume you and your friends are sitting in a group, talking about how your pets like different food of different brands. A random chap walks up to your group and says “hey, I know a guy who can sell you dog food!” Now he calls a seller, who just starts showing you different packets of dog food.
If you want the product, it’s fine. But if you don’t, the seller follows you and friends back to your homes, stands outside your window, holding a “HUGE DISCOUNTS” placard till the time you talk about something else with your friends, and then the dealer changes. The point being, there will be someone outside your window, holding a placard, all the time. And that’s the least invasive it gets.
Assume the internet to be a second home to you, because of the increased activity. Encryption prevents anyone’s interference, be it prying hackers or service providers themselves. End-to-end encryption ensures that your intimate moments are safe. Whether you’re counseling a friend or flirting with your crush, you know you have privacy.
It’s safe to say that encryption has its own flaws too. With children using the web, encryption can be like leaving the children to cross a busy road by themselves. It is also a fair point that encryption has helped crime too.
In fact, in India, WhatsApp groups were used to organize mob lynchings and spread misinformation. It became extremely difficult for the agencies to locate the source of fake information because of end-to-end encryption.
However, asking tech companies to let law enforcement have access to encrypted data defeats the whole purpose of encryption. In simple terms, the government is saying that the encryption is too secure, so the companies should make it slightly less secure, with more exceptions.
Not to forget that if the government has a backdoor into your data, so do hackers. Its also a fact that many governments have compromised the data of their people to cyber attacks. While encryption is a mighty wall of armor against cyber attacks, the government wants to put a chink in it.
Tech companies should think of integrating a solution to curb the misuse of their platforms. However, giving the governments a backdoor to end-to-end encryption is likely to cause more harm than good. Especially in countries with oppressive regimes.