Snowden on Encryption: “Without encryption, we will lose all privacy”

Edward Snowden has weighed in on the international Facebook encryption debate. He warns: “Without encryption, we will lose all privacy”.

Things have been escalating quickly in the encryption debates lately. Earlier this month, the Trump Administration, through William Barr, sent a joint letter on behalf of the US along with representatives from the UK and Australia to Facebook. In the letter, they called on Facebook to halt effort to encrypt users information. While governmental organizations around the world are trying to put an end to effective security, more than 100 digital rights organizations fought back with a joint letter of their own. In that letter, they called on Facebook to move ahead with encrypting communications, calling encryption the bedrock to a modern functioning democracy.

After that, UK MP’s summoned Nick Clegg of Facebook to testify before committee. MPs are demanding answers into why Facebook would move forward with plans to protect users privacy.

Now, another big name in privacy is weighing in: Edward Snowden. In an opinion piece published in the Guardian, Snowden warns that without encryption, people lose privacy. From the column:

And yet, in the midst of the greatest computer security crisis in history, the US government, along with the governments of the UK and Australia, is attempting to undermine the only method that currently exists for reliably protecting the world’s information: encryption. Should they succeed in their quest to undermine encryption, our public infrastructure and private lives will be rendered permanently unsafe.

In the simplest terms, encryption is a method of protecting information, the primary way to keep digital communications safe. Every email you write, every keyword you type into a search box – every embarrassing thing you do online – is transmitted across an increasingly hostile internet. Earlier this month the US, alongside the UK and Australia, called on Facebook to create a “backdoor”, or fatal flaw, into its encrypted messaging apps, which would allow anyone with the key to that backdoor unlimited access to private communications. So far, Facebook has resisted this.

If internet traffic is unencrypted, any government, company, or criminal that happens to notice it can – and, in fact, does – steal a copy of it, secretly recording your information for ever. If, however, you encrypt this traffic, your information cannot be read: only those who have a special decryption key can unlock it.

I know a little about this, because for a time I operated part of the US National Security Agency’s global system of mass surveillance. In June 2013 I worked with journalists to reveal that system to a scandalised world. Without encryption I could not have written the story of how it all happened – my book Permanent Record – and got the manuscript safely across borders that I myself can’t cross. More importantly, encryption helps everyone from reporters, dissidents, activists, NGO workers and whistleblowers, to doctors, lawyers and politicians, to do their work – not just in the world’s most dangerous and repressive countries, but in every single country.

The more recent round of debate surrounding encryption started long before Facebook found itself square in the middle. It actually started sometime last year. In September of 2018, the so-called “Five Eyes” spy organizations called on nations to end effective security. That came on the heals of Australia moving to weaken encryption in their country (a move they eventually followed through with and subsequently caused chaos on the country on multiple fronts). As other countries started looking more seriously into banning effective security, the Five Eyes spy organizations renewed their calls to end effective security online.

Eventually, Facebook, facing multiple privacy scandals, moved to implement end-to-end encryption on their messenger app. This ultimately drew the ire of big government who immediately turned their sights on Facebook. Ever since then, Facebook found itself square in the middle of this privacy debate. With so many moving pieces on this one, it’s very difficult to tell where things will be heading next.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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