As Independence Day rolls around for those of us in the USA, our right to privacy is under attack from many angles. While surveillance capitalism is the area I tend to discuss most, our own democratic governments are perhaps the most existential threat to individual privacy. Welcome to Big Brother 2.0.
The leaders of several US agencies met last Wednesday to discuss the “going dark” problem. As communication services have embraced end-to-end encryption, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have lamented losing their ability to eavesdrop. They claim that they need privileged access – a “back door” for which only they have they key – in order to fight terrorism, child pornography, and other heinous crimes. They say that without such access, they can’t properly protect us.
The current US administration is once again debating passing laws that would outlaw encryption that the government couldn’t break. (This is already being done in the UK and Australia.)
You Can’t Outlaw Math
There are several problems with this, however. First, encryption is just math. You can no more outlaw secure communications than you could outlaw algebra. Furthermore, crypto technology is rock solid and freely available to anyone who wants it. The cat is out of the bag, the horse has left the barn, the digital genie is out of the virtual bottle.
Second, crypto experts and tech companies have clearly explained that there is no way to create a backdoor that only the “good guys” can enter. By hobbling encryption so that US law enforcement and intelligence agencies can break it, we’re also allowing foreign adversaries and hackers the same access.
Finally, strong encryption has become crucial for business and modern day life. The same crypto that protects the iMessages and WhatsApp communications of criminals also protects your bank’s website, stock market transactions, intellectual property and medical records sent via email, control signals in airplanes and cars, and so on.
While the “encryption backdoor” solution has been soundly panned by technologists, a new proposal has arisen that aims to sidestep these concerns. Instead of crippling the end-to-end encryption itself, law enforcement is now asking for an “extra end”.
If your digital communications are encrypted from “end to end”, that means that your messages are scrambled before they leave your device and unscrambled at the recipient’s device. No one in between (including your internet service provider) can read the contents. Law enforcement is now asking that the makers of messaging apps simply add another recipient (often referred to as a “ghost“). This would be like a “BCC” on an email, except that both the sender and recipient are blind to this carbon copy. It would turn even a one-on-one chat into a group chat, basically.
This is a clever solution that does avoid breaking the encryption itself. It would also allow messaging software manufacturers to only tap specific conversations (hopefully requiring a valid warrant). However, it would require the software makers to explicitly lie about the presence of the third party. Privacy-focused companies like Apple have pushed back hard against this.
The Golden Age of Surveillance
The reality is that we’re hardly “going dark”. We’re actually in the Golden Age of Surveillance. The ways that we can be watched and tracked today are too numerous to count. There’s nothing preventing law enforcement from getting a warrant for a smartphone, which will likely contain the unencrypted data they want. Companies like Cellebrite claim they can unlock any Apple device. Sometimes obtaining copies of cloud backups is sufficient, as well, which wouldn’t even tip off the target.
The bottom line is that nothing is preventing targeted, warrant-based surveillance. Old-fashioned gum-shoe investigations that require actual work by live human beings is just as effective now as it was before the Internet. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras, emails, web browsing history, and cell phone tracking provide a whole host of information that was previous unavailable. If the surveillance landscape is a 4K TV, then end-to-end encryption represents just a few dead pixels.
Freedom is Privacy
The bounds of personal privacy are rapidly shrinking. The surveillance state portrayed by George Orwell’s Big Brother in the novel 1984 has in many ways come into being. While it’s perhaps most evident is China’s social credit system, the technology that enables mass surveillance is everywhere. Our digital devices are chock full of sensors. They are listening, watching, and tracking our every move. They are also reporting this information to multiple sources all the time. Even Orwell didn’t imagine that “telescreens” could fit in our pockets. And he certainly didn’t envision that we would all be carrying them around willingly everywhere we go.
As we in the US celebrate our independence this week, we should take the time to stop and think about how integral privacy is to democracy. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press. Freedom against search and seizure and self-incrimination. All of these freedoms require some level of personal privacy.
If you’re still not convinced, I recommend checking out my Data Privacy Day blog. It contains links to several thought-provoking privacy articles. It also has a lot of tips to protect your privacy.
Get Informed, Get Involved
Awareness is step one. We need transparency from our government and all the corporations hoovering up our data, but in the meantime we need to pay attention and educate ourselves as best we can.
And then we need to act. Educate others. Share articles like this on social media. Follow folks who are doing investigative journalism and producing informative articles, share them around. Contact your representatives to support good legislation and argue against bad legislation. Sign up for newsletters. Buy products and services from people making a real effort to protect your privacy. And support groups that are out there fighting for all of us.