We want our information and messages to remain private – that’s a proposition almost universally agreed upon. At the same time, we want to stay safe from crime and give law enforcement the tools they need to protect us from harm.

Those two statements should not necessarily be contradictory, and yet the two have clashed for many years. Police and in some countries the military, have tried increasingly invasive ways of finding out information about us, ostensibly under the guise of protecting us from crime.

It’s ultimately an issue that is not about technology, instead, being about the role that the government plays in our lives and the type of society that we want to live in. However, the advent of completely ubiquitous technology, especially social media and messaging apps, means that the debate has changed significantly.

Technology, encryption and access to information

For many years, the regime in most western democracies has allowed law enforcement to access information about our communications through a few paths. Communications providers – particularly telecoms companies, often were required to give law enforcement access to specific people’s communications, as long as it was approved by a warrant, which in itself, had to be approved by a judge.

As well as the content of communications, law enforcement often need or want metadata: information about where and when messages were sent, typically. At first glance, it seems like this information would be less significant, but many observers say it’s actually often more important – we can find out a huge amount about a person’s life from metadata.

But now government access to information has changed. Many privacy activists have argued against bulk, indiscriminate collection of data about almost all citizens. The issue, they say, is that this type of collection is too non-specific and does not rely on checks and balances that come with a judge-approved warrant. If law enforcement can collect information on all of us, all the time, what makes somewhere like the US or the UK so different from surveillance states like North Korea, they ask.

And those fears have been exacerbated by new technology. Because we all always carry our phones with us, and because we make almost all of our communications through those phones, they provide a rich seam of metadata that law enforcement can mine for use in their investigations.

The debate

One of the ways in which technology companies have combatted this growing tide of law enforcement access to information is through end-to-end encryption – which means that even if law enforcement asked for it, those technology providers simply would not be able to access the information. WhatsApp is a notable user of end-to-end technology.

Governments have started to catch on to the fact that companies are doing this and have started to come up with ways to get around it – most notably through what’s often referred to as a backdoor. Some countries – notably Brazil, where a judge banned the use of WhatsApp unless the company gave law enforcement access (though that case is still in the country’s Supreme Court) – have tried to force companies to give access.

Australia has done it too, and there have been long and protracted court cases in the US, most notably between Apple and intelligence agencies about access to information on iPhones. And this week, international police agency Interpol is planning to condemn the use of encryption, as reported by Reuters. The agency will “cite difficulties in catching child sexual predators as grounds for companies opening up user communications to authorities wielding court warrants,” Reuters says.

According to Reuters, the planned letter says: “Service providers, application developers and device manufacturers are developing and deploying products and services with encryption which effectively conceals sexual exploitation of children occurring on their platforms”. 

“Tech companies should include mechanisms in the design of their encrypted products and services whereby governments, acting with appropriate legal authority, can obtain access to data in a readable and useable format.”

For many, though it’s a laudable aim, that’s a step too far. We don’t often think that big tech companies are truly out to protect our privacy, but in this case, they could be our saviour. 

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