The Australian government has ramped up its fight against the big global tech companies and the various encryption services the offer as part of a push to pressure Facebook into abandoning plans to make its platform more secure.
But the argument that encryption was undermining the fight against abhorrent crimes like child exploitation was a “false binary” that risked making the world significantly less secure, digital rights advocates say.
Late last week, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, along with his US and UK counterparts, wrote to Facebook calling on the social media giant to put a halt to plans to introduce end-to-end encryption across all of its messaging service, as it announced in March.
“We are writing to request that Facebook does not proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens,” the letter said.
“We must ensure that technology companies protect their users and others affected by their users’ online activities. Security enhancements to the virtual world should not make us more vulnerable in the physical world.
“We must find a way to balance the need to secure data with public safety and the need for law enforcement to access the information they need to safeguard the public, investigate crimes, and prevent future criminal activity. Not doing so hinders our law enforcement agencies’ ability to stop criminals and abusers in their tracks.”
In the letter, Australia, the US and the UK call on Facebook to “embed the safety of the public in system designs”, allow law enforcement to access communications in a “readable and usable format”, consult with governments on the issue and not implement the proposed encryption changes.
Speaking about the letter, Mr Dutton said that Facebook needed to “pick a side”.
“At the moment, even with a court-ordered warrant police can’t access the messages to use as evidence to prosecute these evil criminals. You’re either on the side of vulnerable children or not. It is time for Facebook to pick a side,” he said in a statement.
But this argument was based on a false narrative, Digital Rights Watch board-member Lizzie O’Shea said.
“It’s exactly what I would expect from a Minister who is in love with power and has shown nothing but contempt for the idea of accountability,” Ms O’Shea told InnovationAus.com.
“I reject the way in which privacy and security have been framed as counterposed. Privacy and security are complementary for citizens and users. The more secure our communications are, the better protected we will be from criminal behaviour,” she said.
“Of course, law enforcement needs to be able to do their jobs, but they have plenty of powers at their disposal to do so already, which suggests this is a false binary.”
It’s crucial that big tech companies like Facebook adopt encryption, Ms O’Shea said.
“Encryption is a basic requirement for security in the digital age. To offer services without it is like selling a house without locks on the doors.
“Facebook should protect its users by offering encryption as standard across all its messaging services, which is standard practice for many mainstream digital platforms. Until it does, communications are vulnerable to criminal hacking.”
The federal government has been spruiking its new encryption-busting powers on the global stage since they were passed by Parliament late last year.
The new laws allow law enforcement to compel tech companies to provide access to encrypted communications.
They have been heavily criticised for potentially eroding privacy and creating a backdoor into encryption to the detriment of all online activity, and are currently the subject of a number of inquiries.
A number of global digital and civil rights organisations, including Digital Rights Watch, have now hit back with their own open letter to Facebook, urging the tech firm to continue on its encryption plans.
“Each day that platforms do not support strong end-to-end security is another day that this data can be breached, mishandled, or otherwise obtained by powerful entities or rogue actors to exploit it,” the letter said.
“Given the remarkable reach of Facebook’s messaging services, ensuring default end-to-end security will provide a substantial boon to worldwide communications freedom, to public safety and to democratic values, and we urge you to proceed with your plans to encrypt messaging through Facebook products and services.
“We encourage you to resist calls to create so-called ‘backdoors’ or ‘exceptional access’ to the content of users’ messages, which will fundamentally weaken encryption and the privacy and security or all users.”
And Facebook itself has also spoken out against the move from the Australian government, with the company saying in a statement that it “strongly opposes government attempts to build backdoors”.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg addressed the issue at a staff Q&A session that was live-streamed, saying that the issue of child exploitation is the one that weighs “most heavily” on him when considering encryption.
“I still think that the equities are generally in favour of moving towards end-to-end encryption. End-to-end encryption keeps people safe in other ways,” Mr Zuckerberg said.
“Journalists who are operating in countries where there isn’t freedom of the press – think about things like the protests that are going on in Hong Kong right now,” he said.
“I hear stories from dissidents and activists all the time who say that they would be in jail or maybe killed if they couldn’t rely on end-to-end encryption.
So these are some of the hardest decisions that I think we have to make, is trading off these equities that are really heavy.”
A Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into the Australian government’s encryption laws is currently underway, along with an investigation by the independent national security monitor.
But this Independent National Security Legislation Monitor inquiry was last week forced to extend the deadline on submissions after it received only 15 on the new laws.
Ms O’Shea said the general public is still concerned about breaking encryption, and the issue needs to be kept in the mainstream.
“This issue is not going away – the Five Eyes intelligence alliance clearly wants to break encryption. It is critical that citizens understand that the interests of agencies are not always synonymous with the public interest,” she said.
“We cannot continue to grant agencies powers without accountability, and I think lots of people understand this. So it is a matter of turning that into a campaign that can win.”
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