It was the UK’s Guardian newspaper that first broke the revelations of mass surveillance leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden back in 2013.
It is therefore fitting that it is the same newspaper which Snowden has taken to today to flag the new major threat to our online privacy and security; the obsession of the US and UK governments have with undermining encryption.
The trigger for his article was the open letter sent to Facebook last month on behalf of the governments of the UK, USA, and Australia. As we reported at the time, senior government ministers used the letter to plead with Mark Zuckerberg to scrap his proposal to introduce end-to-end encryption on Facebook’s Messenger service.
It is a request that Snowden is rightly railing against.
The case for encryption
As Snowden rightly says, any internet traffic that is unencrypted can be (is, according to Snowden) intercepted, copied, and recorded. This means governments, corporations, and hackers can have a record of your online activity which lasts forever.
He notes the importance of encryption in enabling him to reveal details of the National Security Agencies global mass surveillance programme back in 2013. It has also obviously been crucial in getting his recently published book, Permanent Record, into the public domain from his current exile in Russia.
That’s why encryption is important to Edward Snowden. But in this article, he also does an excellent job of explaining why encryption is important to every internet user.
Encryption is vital to so many aspects of our online lives that we take for granted these days, he explains. Online banking and online shopping depend on it, but so too do the supply chains that ensure the supermarket has food on the shelves and the key national infrastructure that makes sure we have power and water.
Since his revelations in 2013, the use of encryption on the internet has grown exponentially. He estimates that as much as 80% of internet traffic today is encrypted. That is a combination of tech companies like Google and Apple deploying encryption by default, the increased adoption of the HTTPS protocol by websites, and the growth in the use of VPNs.
Encryption may be almost ubiquitous online these days and we are all safer and more secure as a result. But, as Snowden notes rather ruefully, it appears that in the opinion of many government’s we are now too secure.
Snowden’s attack on Attorney General William Barr
It is clear from Snowden’s article, that he believes the US Attorney-General William Barr is at the forefront of this anti-encryption push.
He notes that it was Barr who authorised one of the first US government mass surveillance programmes without giving adequate consideration to its legality.
Barr is now pushing his government and others to oppose the expansion of encryption. The consequence of this would be, as Snowden puts it, “that the communications of billions will remain frozen in a state of permanent insecurity”.
It will not just be US and UK intelligence agencies that can access this communications data. So too will the intelligence agencies of Communist China and Russia as well as countless hackers.
End-to-end encryption also gives internet users protection from the big tech behemoths who operate our most popular social media and messenger services. This is something that, ironically, both the US and UK governments claim to support.
As Snowden explains, modern end-to-end encryption ensures that the encryption key is only held by the recipient of a message. This means that when you send a message on WhatsApp (which already has end-to-end encryption) no-one at WhatsApp or its owners, Facebook, can see what you are sending. This is a vital security feature.
The case for encryption that Snowden makes in this article is irrefutable and overwhelming. The benefits reach into every aspect of our online world and the only detriments that governments can find to make the counter-argument are the way it frustrates their mass surveillance programmes.
All about power
If Snowden’s article is insightful and informative, his conclusions are dramatic and powerful. In addressing why the US and UK Governments are so set against the use of online encryption, his conclusion is that it is all “about power”.
End-to-end encryption empowers users at the expense of service providers and governments, he states.
It also means that government’s and security agencies will have to target their intelligence programmes rather than apply the ‘catch-all-and-sift’ approach they have adopted with their mass surveillance operations.
Encryption means a return to traditional methods of investigation which are not only effective but also respect the rights of citizens. Most people would say this is a good thing and long overdue. It is no surprise that governments and intelligence agencies disagree.
In short, Snowden concludes that end-to-end encryption prevents governments from being able to spy on their populations as a matter of routine. It ensures that “we remain not only safe, but free”, he concludes.
It is a compelling argument and one we heartily agree with. The inevitable come-back from governments will be security, security, security. The next time there is a terrorist attack anywhere in the western world, we can expect this to be seized upon by the US and UK Governments to make the anti-encryption case once more.
It feels like we are stuck in a vicious circle. But for all our sakes, it is to be hoped that Facebook and other big tech companies stand firm in their stance on encryption and that people continue to use VPNs and encrypted messenger services to ensure their online privacy and security now and in the future.