The protection of online rights is as important as the protection of offline rights and freedoms. Social media have been called upon to contribute to ensuring that private individuals’ information does not fall into the hands of third parties and governments by strengthening encryption.
“People live their private lives on these platforms, and they expect that their private lives stay private. Recognizing this, Facebook announced this year that it would limit its own ability to read the messages people share over its messaging platforms.”
However, on October 4, “the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia put billions of Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp users’ privacy and security at grave risk by pressuring Facebook to stop plans to widely implement end-to-end encryption, Kian Vesteinsson, Senior Officer, General Counsel at Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted. According to Vesteinsson,
But now these three governments have demanded Facebook slow those plans. A letter signed by US Attorney General William Barr, US Director of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton asks that the company monitor encrypted communications on the messaging platforms and refer illegal activity to the authorities. They ask that Facebook allow law enforcement to bypass encryption on the platforms, a practice commonly called a “backdoor.”
Cynthia M. Wong has argued that encryption back doors threaten human rights. Kian Vesteinsson argues that
Facebook routinely assists governments in prosecuting child abuse and preventing terrorism, as the letter acknowledges. Governments have a human rights obligation to investigate such crimes. The letter implies that end-to-end encryption will make these investigations impossible because Facebook will not be able to decrypt messages for its own analysis or for law enforcement. But communications surveillance is not the only tool in a government’s online crime-prevention toolbox. In the digital age, states have extraordinary technological capabilities to surveil, investigate, and prosecute.
The real issue is that many people rely on end-to-end encryption to stay safe and secure, from people facing persecution for their identities to human rights activists. The danger of a backdoor is that it opens widely. If some governments have access to decrypted messages, so will others, including repressive governments that want to use the tool abusively. Eventually, sophisticated cybercriminals will exploit backdoor access too.
A backdoor doesn’t guarantee more effective policing as the letter claims. Smart criminals will simply seek out tools with stronger encryption. Less tech-savvy people, meanwhile, will be left at risk of exploitation by rogue and criminal elements online.
Read more about this development here.