We send millions of encrypted messages every day, beaming chatter all around the globe.
Recently, government requests for access to private conversations have hit the headlines.
Should officials be able to read your texts, in the name of national security?
At certain times of heightened emotion, for example after an act of terrorism or shocking news event, it is sometimes claimed that if the government had been able to read private messages between the perpetrators, or had access to their devices, the act could have been stopped.
However, hindsight is a wonderful thing – opponents argue that if an individual is not under investigation, it is fairly unlikely that police services would be able to catch one ‘red flag’ message amongst the billions of communications sent and received daily.
The US government repeatedly requested technical aid from investigators to help them hack into the iPhone of a perpetrator in the San Bernardino shootings of December 2015. Apple repeatedly refused the requests, and the FBI eventually sought a court order from a US judge ordering them to comply.
CEO Tim Cook wrote an open letter to Apple customers in response, explaining that he intends to ignore the order.
He wrote that allowing access to the government would create a “backdoor”, an access point the government could use to pry into users’ phones in future.
It could also be abused by hackers, compromising personal information – and complying would set a precedent for future requests from officials. He wrote, “Compromising the security of our personal information can ultimately put our personal safety at risk. That is why encryption has become so important to all of us.”
Apple has always featured encryption on its devices. Since the release of iOS 8, Apple hasn’t held the keys to de-encrypt them themselves. That means governing bodies couldn’t force them to compromise users’ privacy anyway, as they don’t hold the required code.
It was recently revealed that the perpetrator involved in the London terrorist attack in March 2017 had used WhatsApp shortly beforehand. As a result, the UK government requested “backdoor” access to encrypted messages from the app’s creators.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd said at the time that WhatsApp should not be able to provide “a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other”.
“It used to be that people would steam-open envelopes or just listen in on phones when they wanted to find out what people were doing, legally, through warranty,” Rudd told the BBC. “But on this situation we need to make sure that our intelligence services have the ability to get into situations like encrypted WhatsApp.”
WhatsApp has been using end-to-end encryption since April 2016, meaning messages can’t be intercepted as they travel between devices. Politicians have tried to ban this strong form of encryption, precisely because it means governments cannot access messages.
However, WhatsApp wrote in a blog post at the time: “Recently there has been a lot of discussion about encrypted services and the work of law enforcement.
While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people’s information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states.”
While some people will be of the opinion that if you have nothing to hide you shouldn’t be worried, it can be hard to ignore the security concerns that de-encrypting private messages could have. For others, it is simply a matter of principle. On one hand messages are kept from government officials, but sharing them could potentially opening up personal information to hackers and cyber-criminals.
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