After WhatsApp implemented their groundbreaking default end-to-end encryption, it took politicians, right wing opinion makers and likeminded NGO’s some time to get their act together. Hadn’t Snowden and his likes clearly demonstrated that mass surveillance on an unparalleled scale is real, and had not the public’s response been to condemn it? But while some companies (WhatsApp, Apple, Dropbox etc) are moving in the right direction, law-makers are speaking up – demanding an outright end to end-to-end encryption, or even to encryption itself, in the interest of the prevention of terrorism and crime, and the protection of our democracy itself. “There is no right to encryption” one of the main Dutch newspapers wrote in its commentary last week, and in the interest of safety we have to live with being watched. That’s why encryption should be flawed, and even banned.
Yet, there is a fatal fallacy in their arguments. The point is not, has never been, that secret services and the police should refrain from eavesdropping in on some people’s conversations. This is still possible – end-to-end encryption can be cracked, as has repeatedly been shown, at some effort. The point is that, when cracking messages becomes effortless, and therefore free, weird things start to happen. Mass-scale surveillance of the type that Snowden reported is what you get – for everybody, automatically, relentlessly, 24 hours a day.
Imagine, in the name of crime prevention, that you refrain from locks on your door and you install a microphone in each and every room, because you might say (or think) something that needs bureaucratic scrutiny. This is essentially the world we are living in, as soon as we started to use digital, unprotected communication channels. Each and everyone of us conceived to be a potential threat that must be monitored, scrutinized, mapped and profiled. Totalitarian governments used to do it – some still do – and now every government would want it. Without end-to-end encryption, there is nothing that will stop them.
Article 12 from the Universal Declaration of Human rights clearly states “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” What could be more obvious?
However, so far, few if any governments have shown the self-restraint and courage to put severe limits on mass surveillance, once they gained the technology to spy on their population. They, most unfortunately, seem to lack the moral and ethical rigor and historical insight to stand up against it. The only way for the endangered population to fight back is to demand and use end-to-end encryption on all communication channels, thereby putting a price on decryption and forcing governments to select their targets carefully – as they always did and always should.
From the beginning, the internet has been a powerful force and driver of innovation, but it has been essentially flawed by its unencrypted nature. Without serious protection, not only governments, but companies, black-hat hackers and spies can pry into anything that is being transmitted – and change it, for that matter. This is the time to right this wrong. When times are tough, human rights come under pressure. We should not let that happen, and do anything in our power to stop mass surveillance from being the default, the status quo – in the interest of freedom and democracy itself.