When you send a message to someone you intend it for only yourself and those on the receiving end to be able to read that message. While you are not breaking any laws and have nothing to worry about it is something that is only intended for you and the recipient. It is privacy in its most purest form, whether it is your own conversation or something related to your business. Thanks to end-to-end encryption this is possible but that may not be so for much longer.

What Is End-To-End Encryption?

When a message is sent, whether it is an email or a chat message in a program like Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger it travels out onto the World Wide Web. It passes through intermediaries that have nothing to do with you, your recipient or the platform that is being used. To keep this information private as it is in transit the message is encrypted so that only the sender and receiver will be able to see it. 

Cryptographic keys are used to encrypt and decrypt the message. The messages are encrypted in transit and decrypted automatically when the message is received. There is nothing that either user needs to do. End-to-end encryption is used by several platforms, most notably Apple’s FaceTime and Messages as well as others like WhatsApp and Signal. 

Benefits of End-To-End Encryption

The benefits should be obvious, privacy. This is a critical component for people who value their privacy or live under a repressive government that does not tolerate free speech (or opposing viewpoints). No one wants people to be able to read our own private or professional messages other than the intended recipients and end-to-end encryption helps to keep that secure.

Vulnerabilities of End-To-End Encryption

Now end-to-end encryption is not perfect. It is vulnerable to man-in-the middle attacks where an attacker impersonates a recipient and is able to decrypt the messages. The messages are also stored on the platform’s servers and anyone who has access to those servers will be able to read the messages in plain text. 

A backdoor can also be created that would allow a government entity to be able to retrieve encrypted messages and read them (usually with the platform’s consent). The NSA’s use of a backdoor with Microsoft was one of the disclosures released by Edward Snowden in 2011 and Apple has famously refused to allow the US government the ability to install a backdoor and publicly clashed with the FBI in 2015 and 2016.

Why Would The Trump Administration Want To Remove End-To-End Encryption

Reportedly senior Trump administration officials want to remove end-to-end encryption, preferably via legislation from Congress. They allegedly reason that catching terrorists and criminals should be a higher priority and the risks that come by reduced security thereby increasing the chances of a hack are a lower concern of the DOJ and FBI. Federal law enforcement entities continuously run into roadblocks during investigations, particularly the Secret Service, and not being able to crack the encryption could have devastating consequences from a terrorist attack to an assassination attempt on a government official.

Pushback In The Administration

Not everyone in the administration is apparently on board with this. Other departments are against this as this would compromise their own security with diplomats abroad and in other ways. Removing end-to-end encryption would cause more harm than good and hearkens the age old question of how many of your personal liberties are you willing to give up to increase your security? Considering the federal government is hardly a shining example of cyber security this should give them pause.

The alternatives that could satisfy law enforcement are few. Any backdoor created for use by the government or law enforcement will undoubtedly be exploited by either other state actors or malicious actors at some point. Something like this could be rife for abuse even by our own government. It is not a matter of if but when. British security firms have proposed allowing the government to be a silent and invisible participant in every chat. Besides being Orwellian to the max this will require people to read through every potential conversation or an AI component to be developed to scan messages. That may be fine in China but not in the US.

Will This Happen?

Reports so far are that the idea is simply being discussed. The public reaction is almost certain to be negative and it is possible that this is nothing more than A/B testing being done by the administration to gauge public reaction as an election cycle looms. To pass any legislation regarding this would require bipartisan support and while many legislators are certainly pro-security (or you could argue they are all for increasing their own power) they do not want to face pushback from their constituents who value their privacy and do not want the government reading their messages or even having the ability to arbitrarily read them. That could be something that leaves them unemployed come the next election and no Congressman or Congresswoman wants to be unemployed.

It is also possible that the reports are wrong and this is nothing more than a plan to discredit the administration as we enter another presidential election cycle. Efforts to overcome end-to-end encryption were begun during the Obama administration so this is hardly something that can be blamed solely on Trump and other governments around the world, particularly the UK’s, are also attempting to outlaw it or subvert it.

How Much Privacy Do We Have?

We live our lives today on the Internet and the platforms that we use to do that have access to our information. Some are willfully negligent of it, some treat your information as nothing more than something that can be sold and others are very cognizant of it. While no one wants a terrorist attack to happen or allow someone to plot a murder behind the privacy of a platform is the small chance of that happening worth stripping all ordinary citizens of their privacy? It is the age old question that has existed since we became a country and will only get more intense as technology improves. 

Could a compromise be reached with big tech companies for people suspected of committing a crime via a warrant from a court that could compel a company to provide the requested information but still allow ordinary citizens their privacy? We are leaving the Wild West days of the Internet and encountering problems that Tim Berners-Lee could not have envisioned when he created the World Wide Web in 1991. Legislation will come to set rules, let’s just hope that our representatives keep our best interests in mind.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top