The conflict between personal privacy and public safety – and, specifically, where the line between the two should be drawn – has been debated for a long time. As we are now well into the digital age, it has become even more important.
Some feel quite passionately that our online privacy is the last real privacy we have, whilst others feel that the safety of society as a whole should take precedence over personal privacy. Which side are you on? Let’s take a closer look by delving into the debate around Facebook’s encrypted messages.
The latest development in this debate comes from Facebook, who recently announced that they are planning to implement end-to-end encryption in their Messenger service. This means that only the device used to send and receive the messages can read their contents.
Any third party, whether that be a cybercriminal, the government or even Facebook itself, can’t see the content of encrypted messages, even if they get hold of them.
In response to this announcement, representatives of the UK, US and Australian governments have penned an open letter to Facebook officials asking them to create ‘backdoor’ access to encrypted messages. This would be for governments and law enforcement to use when they believe crimes are being committed, such as messages relating to child abuse or terrorism.
Currently, Facebook are denying the request for a backdoor, as it would ‘undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere’. However, they have stated that they are consulting with child safety experts, governments and technology companies to ensure that their services are as safe as possible from malicious use.
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WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, already uses end-to-end encryption. As Facebook have announced the intended merging of its messenger services into one (including Instagram Direct), then it makes sense from a practical standpoint that messages from these other platforms would also be encrypted. If a ‘backdoor’ were to be created in Messenger, then it would also have to be created in WhatsApp, which would create an even bigger uproar as that encryption is already in place.
Edward Snowden, a former CIA officer and the whistle-blower on US surveillance, believes that allowing governments to access encrypted messages will mean we lose all of our privacy. Snowden calls encryption the ‘only method that currently exists for reliably protecting the world’s information’, information that includes bank balances, hospital records and election data.
Snowden has seen first-hand the power that governments have when they can use surveillance indiscriminately and believes it is the problems caused by mass surveillance which has led to 80% of web traffic being encrypted.
More so, Snowden believes the governments’ desires to have access to a backdoor is less about safety and more about power, because end-to-end encryption ‘gives control to individuals and the devices they use to send, receive and encrypt communications, not to the companies and carriers that route them’.
Alongside the concerns over our personal privacy, there is a concern over whether creating a backdoor into encrypted messages would actually decrease data security rather than improve it. Experts have agreed that creating any sort of backdoor access to encrypted data creates a weakness in the security that could be exploited by cybercriminals and those wishing to do harm, not just the officials trying to keep us safe.
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On the other side of this debate are the governments of the UK, the US and Australia, as well as local law enforcement. They believe that encryption, especially on a platform as expansive as Facebook, will provide a safe haven for offenders to conduct criminal activities, and that the use of social media is essential to criminal investigations in the digital age.
Captain Roger Antonio of the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office says that ‘social media is a vital investigative tool for almost all crimes, including property thefts, child sexual exploitation, homicides and terrorism’. He believes that, if Facebook continues with its plan for encryption, it will ‘severely hinder the already difficult task that law enforcement has of apprehending terrorists and predators’.
The ability of law enforcement to do their job and carry out investigations is essential for society to function, and there have been occasions throughout history where red tape or fear of public backlash has impeded investigations. Law enforcement officials believe that the encryption of Facebook messages may be another example of that.
Steps have already been taken to bypass some of the bureaucracy that impedes law enforcement and investigation. Earlier this month, the UK and US governments announced a data access agreement that allows law enforcement agencies to demand access to certain data from tech companies based in each other’s countries.
Currently, if UK law enforcement wanted to access data from an American tech firm (or vice versa), they would have to request access from the government in a process that could take anywhere from six months to two years.
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Some have suggested that Facebook’s firm position on encrypting their messages is a way of compensating for the security breach last year, where the data of almost 50 million users was left exposed.
Regardless of Facebook’s reasoning for implementing encryption, most people can agree on the paramount importance of preventing acts of terrorism, child abuse and other serious crimes. However, at the heart of this debate is the question of whether it is really possible to target those criminals without also breaching the privacy and security of innocent people.
Edward Snowden believes that all encryption means for governments is that their surveillance would need to become ‘targeted and methodical’, whilst Captain Antonio states that the full encryption of social media accounts would ‘dismantle great strides already made’ in cyber-safety, especially those concerning safeguarding children.
Would it be possible to employ a warrants system, where law enforcement can’t access data indiscriminately but must provide reasonable evidence of wrongdoing to access a backdoor? Possibly, but as suggested earlier, the very existence of a backdoor is a weakness in the security system and it can’t be assured that only the proper authorities will access it.
Can privacy ever truly be compromised for the sake of safety? Whilst George Orwell’s 1984 is evoked readily whenever issues of government surveillance crop up, in this case, it may be apt. If we allow governments and other authorities access to our encrypted messages, the last true defence of online privacy, are we moving towards a surveillance state with increased data retention?
A line has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise declaring our love for Big Brother won’t be far behind. Finding where that line should be in order to keep society safe from those who wish us harm is the challenge.