The Encryption Debate

Discussing the encryption debate on C4 News
Discussing Encryption on C4 News

I spoke on Channel 4 News earlier this week about the debate surrounding end-to-end encryption. The debate, which is often framed in terms of privacy vs security, emerged last weekend when Amber Rudd (the UK’s Home Secretary) argued that it was “completely unacceptable” that the government could not read messages protected by end-to-end encryption. Her comments were in response to reports that Khalid Masood was active on WhatsApp just before he carried out the attack on Westminster Bridge on 22 March 2017. Rudd was, therefore, talking in this case about WhatsApp, although her comments obviously have connotations for other messaging services, and the use of encryption in general.

WhatsApp explain what end-to-end encryption means when using their app:

“WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption ensures only you and the person you’re communicating with can read what is sent, and nobody in between, not even WhatsApp. Your messages are secured with a lock, and only the recipient and you have the special key needed to unlock and read your message. For added protection, every message you send has a unique lock and key. All of this happens automatically: no need to turn on settings or set up special secret chats to secure your messages” WhatsApp FAQs

This is not the first time that anti-encryption messages from the government have hit the headlines. In 2015, for example, then-PM David Cameron called for encryption to be banned. As I mentioned earlier, the argument is often presented as being about privacy vs security. Those in favour of banning encryption argue that it would protect national security, by preventing malicious actors (such as terrorists) from being able to communicate in secret. Those who make this argument claim that this overrides any individual right to privacy. The government have a challenging job to do and surely this is never more challenging than in the wake of a terrorist attack. We also cannot expect ministers to be subject matter experts on all issues which are presented before them, let alone have a deep understanding of technical complexities.

The issue, from my point of view, is that this is not about security vs privacy at all. To ban or undermine encryption has security implications, given that encryption underpins online banking, financial transactions and more sensitive communications. The UK government has pledged to make this country the most secure place in the world to do business online, which appears at odds with their messages on encryption. The true debate we need to have, then, is about security vs security.

By Dr Jessica Barker