Strong Encryption Software – Defending Free Speech or Enabling Crime?

The United Nations is putting pressure on governments looking to relax encryption security by citing the basic human right that people have to anonymity. In a recently published report the UN have defended the use of strong encryption as a way of protecting freedom of speech in the digital age. From journalists and protestors, to citizens who expect privacy online, encryption gives the opportunity to share opinions and debate without fearing exposure. But does protecting this right outweigh a nation’s security? By protecting freedom of speech are we also protecting paedophiles, terrorists, drug dealers and financial criminals?

The argument in favour of strong encryption is that anonymity is essential as a human right. The UN believes that digital privacy deserves protection and that giving authorities access to encrypted data would be a betrayal of freedom of expression. It is believed that any measures that are undertaken to weaken the security of online data communication would render the encryption tools useless and making anonymity impossible. The reduction of encryption would also mean the death of online banking, with the backdoor created too inviting for those looking to exploit the platform. Online shopping too would take a hit, with the risk of card details being viewed and utilised far too great a risk.

For governments and authorities whose purpose is to protect national and global security, access to digital communications at the expense of anonymity is a necessary evil. What is being proposed is a backdoor to encryption tools, meaning that the data remains scrambled up until it is required. The investigating authority in question would then be given the equivalent of a ‘Master Key’ to unscramble the relevant data and monitor the communications therein. A change to encryption of this magnitude would rewrite cyber security, which many critics argue would make encryption a pointless exercise.
The idea of data security and the strength of the tools available has certainly drawn debate in the industry, but also uncertainty amongst the general public. In our previous post we talked about the Draft Communication Bills Announcements and the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’. Consumers are obviously uneasy as to what privacy actually means in the digital environment and technology companies are tightening encryption to ease these fears and show a concerted effort to protect their customers. If providing authorities’ access to this data is an anti-terrorism measure though, then surely tightening security only further benefits those who intend to bring us harm.

A compromise of sorts does seem to have been proposed, with the UN accepting that there are some instances where law enforcers should be able to restrict anonymity and encryption, but only on a case-by-case basis. This makes the idea of court ordered decryption a possibility, making a judicial warrant necessary before access can be granted. Unsurprisingly perhaps, both sides refuse to accept that this measure goes far enough in their favour. For authorities it severely affects the speed with which they can challenge potential threats and for the UN and those in favour of privacy it still creates that backdoor access.

Ultimately the argument for reforming encryption and allowing access does have one quite significant flaw. Creating a backdoor doesn’t just give access to governments and authorities. It would require those who create the tools, multinationals like Google and Apple for example, to insert this feature into each of their products. From a cyber-security perspective it is only a matter of time before this access is hacked, revealing personal communications not just to law enforcement but also to criminals across the globe, who could use it for personal gain. A good example of this was the Clipper chip, developed by the NSA for voice transmission. This was hacked almost immediately.

Is the threat of this eventuality enough to keep governments at bay, or will the pull of unveiling terrorist plots and creators of explicit child porn prove too much? Time will tell and, as always, the digital world will adapt.