Wiser! Essay: The UK Government has been amongst the most vocal when it comes to opposing BigTech's use of End-to-End Encryption. Now, they are about to spend over half a million £s on a media campaign to persuade Facebook users that its a bad thing.
Wiser! Newsletter 🤖
Join the mailing list and never miss an update
BackStory: In 2018 the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) listed end-to-end encryption as one of the technologies making criminals’ jobs easier, as it makes it more difficult for law enforcement organisations to “collect intelligence and evidence”. The Children’s Commission for England has previously warned that end-to-end encryption is threatening children’s safety online.
End-to-end encryption (”E2EE”) is built into many major messaging apps including WhatsApp (owned by MetaFacebook) and iMessage (run by Apple). It is also embedded in the independent messaging apps Signal and Telegram. MetaFacebook recently stated that it would be adding E2EE to both Messenger and Instagram by 2023.
Now, Rolling Stone magazine has reported that the UK government is allocating over £500,000 to launch a multi-pronged publicity attack against end-to-end encryption. (It must be true because it was on the BBC!)
The campaign is intended to build opposition to E2EE and is called No Place to Hide. Apparently, the brief to M&C Saatchi (the PR firm given the job to run the media campaign) states a key objective is “mobilizing public opinion against Facebook’s decision to encrypt its Messenger app”.
The Point Is: The UK government is one of the most vocal opponents of the use of encryption by BigTech. Successive governments in the UK (and the US) have taken strong anti-encryption stances on the basis that it prevents law enforcement agencies from the general surveillance of bad people. But this UK PR campaign is focused very specifically on one area: online child exploitation.
The media blitz aims to take advantage of the public’s general lack of awareness of what end-to-end encryption is. However, Privacy watchdogs have accused the UK government of “scaremongering” after reports emerged that the media campaign will use highly emotive methods to influence public opinion against E2EE. The campaign is planned to include encouraging users to write to Mark Zuckerberg in opposition to E2EE.
According to documents reviewed by Rolling Stone, one of the activities considered as part of the publicity offensive is a striking stunt designed to create “a visual PR stunt.” It goes like this...
“A glass box is installed in a public space. Inside the box, there are two actors; one child and one adult. Both strangers. The child sits playing on their smart phone. At the other end of the box, we see an adult sat on a chair also on their phone, typing away. The adult occasionally looks over at the child, knowingly. Intermittently through the day, the ‘privacy glass’ will turn on and the previously transparent glass box will become opaque. Passers by won’t be able to see what’s happening inside. In other words, we create a sense of unease by hiding what the child and adult are doing online when their interaction can’t be seen.”
TalkingPoint: Governments around the world have repeatedly pressured the tech industry to create so-called backdoors to encryption systems. In August 2018, the US government pressured Facebook to break into its Messenger app so that law enforcement could listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe.
In late 2019, the UK, US and Australian governments jointly signed an open letter to Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg demanding a backdoor way into its encryption system. The three Governments claimed that encryption supports the prevalence of online child abuse. In response, The Zuck reaffirmed Facebook's commitment to encryption across its messaging services.
However, last year it was reported in The Information that MetaFacebook is investigating ways to analyze encrypted data without having to decrypt it. Which is a "having your cake and eating it" approach to keeping user data private. Because the reason why MetaFacebook is hiring AI experts is to find a way to interrogate encrypted data in WhatsApp messages.
This is so that they can use it to better target ads based to users.
The ability to decipher encrypted data is called "homomorphic encryption." Microsoft, Amazon and Google are also working on the approach. The aim of homomorphic encryption is to allow companies to read and analyze data while keeping it encrypted to protect information from cybersecurity dangers and to maintain privacy.
The argument against the Gov approach is that by removing E2EE, criminals will simply move elsewhere, taking users (children?) with them. Some even question whether this is actually a red herring, fuelling the rumours that Western intelligence agencies have the ability to crack some forms of encryption anyway.
This is supported by Edward Snowden's leaks almost a decade ago where he suggested US and UK intelligence agencies had broken encryption used across the Internet. It is also rumoured that the US's NSA and UK's GCHQ already have the supercomputing power to crack encryption.
If that were to be true (and I kinda suspect that it is) then it begs the question "what's the point of the No Place To Hide campaign?". But maybe that's the point...it's just a big diversion tactic.
If you enjoyed this article and it gave you a perspective you didn't have, you could show your appreciation and make a small donation to support the independence of the Wiser! Newsletter. Virtual coffees cost €2 each and you can buy them here...
Sources of Insight and Information
Media Campaign website. Source: No Place to Hide
UK Gov't plans PR blitz to undermine chat privacy. Source: Rolling Stone
Encryption Helping Crooks Evade Police, Finds NCA. Source: Silicon UK Tech News
Open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. Source: HM Government
Meta delays full Facebook and Instagram message encryption to 2023. Source: Engadget
Facebook Researchers Hope to Bring Together Two Foes: Encryption and Ads. Source: The Information
Children At Risk From End-to-End Encryption. Source: Silicon UK Tech News