Encrypted messages favour the worst of the worst
By Rachael Falk, CEO Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre
Published in The Australian 20/02/20
Imagine arriving in a new city to discover the police no longer patrol its streets. They don’t walk the beat or watch neighbourhoods from the safety of their cars. This city is home to the worst of the worst: child traffickers, child pornographers who groom children and share images, and terrorists who plot to kill and maim large numbers of Australians.
Then imagine learning that, while not condoning the really bad things that go on there, locals accept this neglect. They just shrug and settle for the argument that people value their privacy and want to be left alone.
This place may seem improbable, but these badlands are no further from you than the nearest laptop or smart phone. That’s because many of the messaging apps we use every day are walled off from law enforcement agencies by end-to-end encryption. In other words, privacy is now protected to such an extent that good guys can’t find and catch bad guys.
When the first telephone call was made by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, the excitement and novelty of his breakthrough overshadowed any anxieties about privacy. Given the marvel of instantaneous communication, few of the telephone’s first users cared whether their conversations were private. Bell, for one, wanted the whole world to hear his voice.
This attitude changed little in the decades that followed. For decades into the 20th century, cheeky telephone operators sometimes listened in after connecting callers on local switchboards. It was a widely known and accepted reality.
In more recent times we still understood that telecommunications could be monitored, though appropriately — as a society we insisted that interception be authorised by judicial warrants. On the whole, the use of such warrants has been measured. And they have made us immeasurably safer by helping authorities to weed out crooks, fraudsters, pedophiles and terrorists. It is perplexing, then, to hear some people call for these same protections to abandoned when it comes to messaging apps.
They argue the advent of new messaging services has somehow given birth to a new right to encryption. They contend that encrypted messages should be beyond the reach of the same authorities that have kept us safe for decades. The checks and balances of the judicial warrant system are apparently not enough to shake their conviction.
This argument ignores the fundamental truth that we are just as vulnerable on messaging apps as we always have been on older platforms. The same crooks, fraudsters, pedophiles and terrorists have not restricted themselves to monitorable platforms; they now use messaging apps to plot their malevolent acts. They continue to scam us, defraud us, menace our children and threaten our public safety. Only now the convenience of messaging apps allows them to find one another and conspire more easily in a cyber world that is invisible, encrypted and beyond the reach of the law.
Criminality exists whether we can see it or not. Whether it occurs in the digital badlands or over the back fence shouldn’t make a difference to the protections we expect. After all, we wouldn’t respect the privacy of a neighbour whose home was turned over to producing meth or child pornography, so we shouldn’t respect the privacy of our digital neighbours who — evidence tells us — carry on the same conduct every day.
Cyber criminals are not only causing harm in faraway places or to the naive few who take the greatest risks online. Their actions may not have affected you but every day someone’s daughter or son is being groomed by pedophiles, someone’s brother or sister is being scammed by fraudsters, and someone’s parent is in the crosshairs of a would-be terrorist. The idea of privileging online privacy over these people’s welfare is mind-boggling to many.
We should question the argument of tech giants that encrypted messaging is “what the public wants” or that breaking encryption would forever invite the government into everyone’s bedroom or boardroom. This argument ignores the fact messaging platforms are entirely compatible with a system of judicial warrants.
So next time you use a messaging app and marvel at its convenience, understand that right alongside you in the same dimly lit and unpoliced streets are society’s worst criminals. It is possible to live in a safer world that gives you the same convenience without compromising on security, and without needing to give law enforcement agencies untrammelled authority to snoop.
We can continue to enjoy convenience of instant messaging platforms without prioritising the privacy of criminals over the safety of our loved ones.