Why Is End-To-End Encryption Fundamentally Misunderstood?

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You can always rely on the media to further spread misinformation where technology is concerned. With the news of the recent ransomware attack that brought down portions of the NHS, morning news panels dissected the news with varying degrees of success. Despite information about how the ransomware virus spread throughout networks, news anchors shared personal anecdotes about changing their passwords and worrying that their NHS records may have been compromised. On the surface, this behaviour is nothing more than a harmless attempt to relate with their viewers. However, it’s just another way that misinformation can spread. The responsible thing to do would be to be informed or at least gain clarification before raising these questions in front of a sizeable audience.

This isn’t the first time the media has skewered an aspect of the tech world. Granted, technology isn’t the most difficult thing to grasp, but if the Canadian prime minister can explain quantum computing in a press briefing, newsreaders should be able to gain a basic understanding of technology. End-to-end encryption and the implications for internet security have been brought into the limelight on several occasions in recent years. Following the Westminster attacks earlier this year, Home Secretary Amber Rudd skewered Apple’s Tim Cook and the messaging service WhatsApp for providing “a secret place for terrorists to communicate with each other”.

She took issue with the end-to-end encryption that ensures only the sender and receiver are able to decode messages. WhatsApp isn’t the only service to offer this kind of secure messaging; iMessage, Allo, Viber, Line and Signal all offer end-to-end encryption. The Home Secretary has now set out her aims to put an end to all end-to-end encryption in order to allow the authorities the opportunity to prevent future terrorist attacks.

In the wake of the San Bernardino attacks last year, Apple was embroiled in a furious debate with the FBI over their refusal to unlock the killer’s iPhone device. Apple released an in-depth statement outlining their position. Quite simply, there was no way to unlock one phone without creating something that would endanger the privacy of all phone. The code required by the FBI to unlock this one phone could not be “unwritten”. Like opening Pandora’s box, there’s no way back once it has been conceived.

The same can be said for end-to-end encryption. The protections that are in place to keep messages private aren’t just giving the bad guys a “place to hide”, but they are also keeping our private information safe from another breed of bad guys. End-to-end encryption is used by banks and other financial institutions to keep our money safe in a world that operates increasingly without physical paper currency. To open a “backdoor” into end-to-end encryption would make the internet a much more dangerous place for everyone. Not to mention, national security agencies rely on end-to-end encryption to ensure that only the right people have access to information.

Without a proper understanding of how end-to-end encryption works, it’s difficult to see how anyone could argue for or against it. Removing encryption isn’t the way forward, particularly when users have grown accustomed to the security they experience on the network. If encryption were to be removed from all of the popular messaging apps, within a day, a slew of end-to-end encrypted apps would have cropped up in their place. Although Rudd believes she can appeal to the tech founders to remove the encryption voluntarily, she has not ruled out introducing legislation that would effectively ban messaging services which could not be intercepted by the security services. Which is to say, it would be the end of end-to-end encryption, which would be damaging to IT security as a whole.

Rebecca Harper is a freelance tech journalist with a particular interest in the way technology and politics often collide. She works with BCN Group, a leading provider of IT Support in Manchester to investigate trends in tech media coverage.

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