Last week, the encryption debate got a fresh jolt. Along with pals Australia and the U.K., the U.S. asked Facebook to pause building end-to-end encryption into its products. At a publicly broadcasted employee Q&A Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg suggested FB plans to push forward.
Let’s dissect this
On one side…Tim Cook, Zuck, and many other tech leaders think online communication platforms should be encrypted end-to-end. It’s a boon to user privacy because third parties can’t see what you’re saying.
On the other…governments say encryption provides cover to bad guys. They argue it leaves law enforcement agencies in the dark and hampers investigations into terrorists, human traffickers, and cybercriminals.
Not being spied on is nice, but with encryption, criminals also get that luxury. So governments want companies to water down or bypass encryption by building “backdoors.” Tech companies have chafed at backdoors, fearing they could be abused for mass surveillance (NSA u up?) or exploited by hackers.
There’s no easy fix
Encryption shows that some advances in tech come with serious tradeoffs. A couple real-life examples:
- Two weeks ago, the NYT published an investigation into the spread of child sexual abuse materials online. Offenders are using encryption to evade detection.
- But human rights activists, dissidents, and journalists use encrypted communications in countries with weak human rights records.
If history’s any guide…
…we don’t have a guide. After the San Bernardino terrorist attack in 2015, the FBI asked Apple to tweak iOS and give investigators access to the shooter’s locked (and encrypted) iPhone. Apple said no and the two went to court. Then the FBI unlocked the phone through other means, dropped the case, and the legal fight fizzled out.
As the world’s largest social media company pivots to encryption, 2.7+ billion FB, WhatsApp, and Instagram monthly active users will soon leave untraceable trails when sliding into DMs. That’s got governments worried.