In an op-ed published Tuesday by The Guardian, American whistleblower Edward Snowden expressed alarm over global governments' efforts to undermine encryption, highlighting a recent attempt by the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia to pressure Facebook to create a "backdoor" into its encrypted messaging applications.
"The true explanation for why the U.S., U.K., and Australian governments want to do away with end-to-end encryption is less about public safety than it is about power."
—Edward Snowden, whistleblower
"For more than half a decade, the vulnerability of our computers and computer networks has been ranked the number one risk in the U.S. Intelligence Community's Worldwide Threat Assessment—that's higher than terrorism, higher than war," wrote Snowden.
"And yet, in the midst of the greatest computer security crisis in history, the U.S. government, along with the governments of the U.K. and Australia, is attempting to undermine the only method that currently exists for reliably protecting the world's information: encryption," he continued. "Should they succeed in their quest to undermine encryption, our public infrastructure and private lives will be rendered permanently unsafe."
As Snowden noted, "in the simplest terms, encryption is a method of protecting information, the primary way to keep digital communications safe." Messaging apps often use end-to-end encryption (E2EE)—which, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) explains, "ensures that a message is turned into a secret message by its original sender, and decoded only by its final recipient."
For six years straight, the vulnerability of our computer networks has been the top risk on the US Intelligence Community’s Worldwide Threat Assessment – ranked higher than terrorism; higher than war.
This surveillance scheme will make it worse.https://t.co/MFZdRnCvTR
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 15, 2019
Facebook-owned WhatsApp already uses E2EE. The New York Times reported in January that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has ordered its implementation across all company messaging platforms, including Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct. Acknowledging that encrypted apps could be used for "truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism, and extortion," Zuckerberg wrote in blog post on March 6 that "we've started working on these safety systems building on the work we've done in WhatsApp, and we'll discuss them with experts through 2019 and beyond before fully implementing end-to-end encryption."
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On Oct. 4, four top officials from various countries—U.S. Attorney General William Barr, then-acting U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton—sent an open letter (pdf) to Zuckerberg requesting that "Facebook does not proceed with its plan to implement end-to-end encryption across its messaging services without ensuring that there is no reduction to user safety and without including a means for lawful access to the content of communications to protect our citizens."
Facebook responded by reiterating the company's commitment to its E2EE plans and opposition to backdoors. "We believe people have the right to have a private conversation online, wherever they are in the world," the company said in a statement. "End-to-end encryption already protects the messages of over a billion people every day... We strongly oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of people everywhere."
Encryption is a human right in the digital society. Full stop. We should have it by design and default in the technology we use. I agree with @Snowden "Without encryption, we will lose all privacy. This is our new battleground" https://t.co/9YhAh0UsWn
— Francesca Bria (@francesca_bria) October 15, 2019
Although Facebook has thus far resisted government pressure, Snowden warned Tuesday that "if Barr's campaign is successful, the communications of billions will remain frozen in a state of permanent insecurity: users will be vulnerable by design. And those communications will be vulnerable not only to investigators in the U.S., U.K., and Australia, but also to the intelligence agencies of China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—not to mention hackers around the world."
Snowden, who worked for CIA and NSA, is now president of the board of directors of the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation. Last month, the whistleblower published a memoir entitled Permanent Record about his experience leaking classified U.S. government documents to the press in 2013, which sparked global discussions about privacy rights and mass surveillance, and led Snowden to seek asylum in Russia.
"When I came forward in 2013, the U.S. government wasn't just passively surveilling internet traffic as it crossed the network, but had also found ways to co-opt and, at times, infiltrate the internal networks of major American tech companies. At the time, only a small fraction of web traffic was encrypted: six years later, Facebook, Google, and Apple have made encryption-by-default a central part of their products, with the result that today close to 80 percent of web traffic is encrypted," Snowden wrote. "Barr, who authorized one of the earliest mass surveillance programs without reviewing whether it was legal, is now signalling an intention to halt—or even roll back—the progress of the last six years."
While Barr and his co-signers "invoked the spectre of the web's darkest forces" to justify their opposition to E2EE, Snowden argued that "the true explanation for why the U.S., U.K., and Australian governments want to do away with end-to-end encryption is less about public safety than it is about power: E2EE gives control to individuals and the devices they use to send, receive, and encrypt communications, not to the companies and carriers that route them. This, then, would require government surveillance to become more targeted and methodical, rather than indiscriminate and universal."