Friday 24 September 2021 6:00 am

Priti Patel's encryption war is a master key for surveillance

Rachel Chiu is a contributor and Technology Fellow for Young Voices. She tweets @rachelhchiu.

P­­riti Patel has put encryption in her sights. The Home Secretary has backed a campaign to prevent Facebook rolling out end-to-end encryption across its many platforms, accusing secure messaging sites of harbouring pedofiles. Patel wants a back door to privacy.

This month, the Home Office launched a new fund to combat child sexual abuse material online. An undeniably worthy cause.The fund will award five organisations up to £85,000 each to develop technologies to detect illegal material on “messaging platforms with end-to-end encryption.” The initiative is well-intended, but weakening encryption will endanger the lives of millions who need it to communicate safely.

Platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Signal, and Telegram keep messages secure using end-to-end encryption which, at its most basic level, enables text to be read only by the sender and recipient. No intermediaries nor external parties can read the messages. Patel has become increasingly frustrated with this feature on social media platforms.

Weakening encryption is not a targeted solution. It compromises everyone’s private conversations in an attempt to catch a minority of bad actors, who will likely scatter to different forums.

The security that encryption provides is akin to locks on your front door. If Patel has her way, there would be an easily reproducible master key. In the wrong hands, that key would put everyone at risk. Those who depend upon online privacy protections will be hurt the most: journalists and their sources, activists, dissidents, and persecuted minorities.

Encryption is essential to maintain human rights, democracy, and the free press. Activists in Hong Kong, Russia, Myanmar, and Belarus have used encrypted messaging apps to organise protests and speak out against oppressive regimes. In an age of digital surveillance, facial recognition, and censorship, these private channels are one of few ways for activists to communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

The Home Office claims to only target criminals; the technology won’t harm innocent people. But the initiative is encouraging companies from around the world to develop encryption-breaking tools. Only five submissions will receive funding and be bound to the government’s policies, while the rest can commercialise their ideas or, even worse, submit them to oppressive regimes who are just as interested in developing this technology.

The Home Office initiative is remarkably similar to the recent furore over Apple’s proposals to monitor child sexual abuse material online. The policy was condemned by privacy experts and researchers alike. Last month, Apple announced its plan to proactively scan images on iPhones and other devices for child pornography. In an open letter, an international coalition of more than 90 civil society organisations called upon Apple to abandon its plans, noting that once the capability exists, there will be pressure from governments around the world to scan people’s private photos.

Apple promised it wouldn’t give in to government pressure, but just last week, it pulled down  Alexei Navalny’s voting app after pressure from Russia.

In response to widespread criticism, Apple delayed the rollout. But by that point, Patel was inspired: five days later the Home Office announced its intent to finance similar technologies. Patel encouraged Apple to “see through” its project.

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