It’s a debate that will dominate the technology world in the upcoming years, and its outcome will shape Internet privacy for the foreseeable future. But, what’s it all about? Here’s everything you need to know.
It boils down to this. Technology companies can now encrypt information so strongly that no one can break it without a decryption key – a key that may not always be obtainable.
Not even the people who developed the encryption can break past it. Not even the fastest, most intelligent super computers in the world can break it. For all intents and purposes, this type of encryption is simply impregnable unless you have that decryption key.
And this encryption prevents access. Access to conversations and other information that find their home in the digital world.
What do the authorities (team surveillance) say?
This makes authorities and governments everywhere nervous. But why?
Because it means people can keep digital information away from the authorities, effectively locking them out, bar nothing. Whether it’s information sent across the Internet or information stored on a computer, unbreakable encryption means there is simply no way the authorities can access it, even if they intercept the messages or obtain the computer.
They argue that this means that criminals and terrorists can communicate with each other or store digital information without any risk of it being seen by the people trying to take them down. Basically, their argument is unbreakable encryption is a nightmare for both national security and effective policing.
So what does team surveillance want? They want technology companies to provide a “backdoor” to their encryption, and they want to be able to force technology companies to help them break into those back doors when they need them to.
So while the encryption will still be strong enough to keep out the computer criminal, the authorities can still break past it by working with the relevant software company. Ultimately, they don’t want 100% unbreakable encryption. They want 99% unbreakable encryption with them able to access that all-important 1% backdoor.
It all boils down to access. The authorities don’t want people to be able to converse or store digital information that they cannot access, especially when they have the appropriate legal jurisdiction to do so. Any service that refuses to help the authorities break past their own security encryption would be immediately compelled to do so, or those that refuse to build backdoors thus making access technically unfeasible would see their services rendered illegal.
What do the technology companies (team privacy) say?
The technology companies say that what the authorities and governments are asking for is not a good idea at all. After many highly publicised privacy stories hitting the mainstream news, such as the Edward Snowden revelations against the NSA, online privacy is a big concern amongst the public. And as a result technology companies strive to protect their customer’s privacy to the best of their ability.
Technology companies argue that providing a backdoor past their encryption will undermine privacy. Something that will make it difficult for technology companies to gain the trust of their customers.
Additionally many companies, most notably Apple, have said that creating any kind of backdoor would weaken their overall security since any backdoor has the potential to be exploited by criminals.
Those who side with team privacy also argue another point. That there is no evidence to suggest that complying with the government will prevent terrorist attacks, which is a selling point team surveillance have been using. Many pending court cases, like the San Bernardino case with Apple and the FBI, are after-the-fact cases where the authorities have requested help after the terrorist attack has already taken place.
Claims that greater government access would have helped prevent terrorist attacks like those in Paris in 2015 are greatly disputed since those attacks were organised largely offline, something that team privacy assert will be more commonplace if technology companies provide governments with backdoors.
One more argument made by team privacy is that – if team surveillance got their way – serious criminals would simply use (what would be) illegal communication tools that provide unbreakable encryption. The global nature of the Internet means it is inherently difficult for authorities to prevent them from doing so.
Let’s dispel a myth
The debate has bought about many myths, and one of those is that technology companies are not being cooperative with the authorities.
In fact, in the vast majority of cases, they are. Companies that offer services that are not impregnable can and regularly do cooperate with authorities when the appropriate legal requests are made. Facebook can still access your Facebook timeline and chat logs. Google can still access your Gmail emails. With the correct court order, you can still have authorities snooping into any number of online accounts or services you use.
Where are we now?
Put simply, in the courts. This debate has been simmering for a number of years and with a number of high profile cases, most notably the San Bernardino killings, it has all been bought to a head. Apple is in court with the FBI in a number of privacy related cases. Microsoft has been to court after the Department of Justice demanded access to emails stored on a server in Ireland. Something Microsoft claims exceeds the DOJs jurisdiction.
The pending court cases in the United States have the potential to shape US policy on privacy, unbreakable encryption and to what extent technology companies can be forced to help their respective governments. And this is likely to have serious ripple effects on policy and legislation around the world.
People are taking sides in this debate. And people are being asked what side they would take – team privacy or team surveillance?