At ICCL, we were concerned to read your editorial regarding the right to privacy in a democracy. You refer to the proposal to provide end-to-end encryption for messaging services, and say that our right to privacy must end there.
But end-to-end encryption protects us all. Compare it to privacy in our postal service. In order for the public to send correspondence via post, they must be able to trust that it will not be interfered with.
Privacy in our communications with others protects our freedom of expression, and indeed many other rights, including the right to associate with others and to assemble peacefully. Nobody would dream of allowing the government to open every letter sent via the post, so why would we allow it over telecoms?
Moreover, the crimes that you say we would be protected against by banning encryption — terrorism and paedophilia — will not be stopped by allowing government to read our WhatsApp messages. We already have provisions in law to deal with these grave crimes. We should not, and do not need to, interfere with the fundamental rights of the entire population in order to deal with them.
The dangers inherent in allowing broad access to our private communications are many, and in many parts of the world journalists are at risk when their communications are not private. Human rights activists across the globe are spied on and harmed by governments. Closer to home, our democracy is under threat when corporations spy on us and sell data about our political preferences to political candidates vying for our votes.
You rightly describe concerns attached to big tech being able to “pry arbitrarily wherever and whenever they think they can get away with it”, but you could apply a similar critique to State intelligence agencies.
Fortunately, encryption can help protect against these concerns about government and big tech alike. Our fundamental right to privacy includes a healthy fear of ever increasing and normalised surveillance. End-to-end encryption helps protect against those who misuse surveillance to target groups who are vulnerable to repression and human rights abuse — including journalists and activists.
Breaking encryption is therefore not the solution. Holding our policing and intelligence agencies accountable — to ensure their practices are absolutely transparent, accountable and human rights proofed, is ever the way forward.