While some argue that encrypted communication services are powerful privacy tools, others worry about their potential to hinder law enforcement and shield criminals. It seems the British government falls squarely into the latter camp, and is allegedly preparing a major advertising campaign to promote their message. Are they right to do so? And will it even work?
Rolling Stone Magazine recently broke the news that the UK government had hired an advertising agency to prepare a new public relations campaign. Its purpose? To undermine public confidence in the ethicacy of encrypted communications apps.
Leaked documents have revealed plans to stage PR stunts and run hard-hitting online ads. Specifically, the intention is to galvanize the public into opposing Facebook’s plans to implement end-to-end encryption on their Messenger app. While Facebook does currently offer an encrypted 'secret messages' feature, they're planning to extend end-to-end encryption to all messages sent on their platform
One particularly eye-catching detail in the leaked plan is a proposed street display in which two actors — an adult and a child — sit inside a large glass box. Passersby would see the two characters on internet devices, presumably messaging each other, before the exterior of the box is obscured, preventing those outside from seeing what happens next.
Broadly speaking, the campaign is meant to make the British public “uneasy” about the concept of encrypted communication services in general.
To understand the motives of the British government, we have to explain the main argument against encrypted communication tools like WhatsApp, Telegram, and (in the future) Facebook Messenger.
Opponents of end-to-end encryption express concerns around its potential to protect criminals and bad actors online. It can prevent law enforcement from tracking predators or terrorists, for example, as their messages are largely innaccessable.
The fact that the new government campaign seems to have a particular focus on the exploitation of children is not really surprising. It’s a major topic of concern for authorities and the public, and could sway people to actively support anti-encryption legislation.
This isn’t a one-sided argument, of course. Proponents of encrypted communication apps will be quick to point out the many benefits they provide.
With end-to-end encryption, journalists and activists living under oppressive regimes can communicate with a greater level of safety. Privacy advocates also point out that vulnerable people, including children, can benefit from being able to communicate safely and anonymously.
And then there’s the first-principles argument in favor of everyone having access to private communication services. End-to-end encryption offers you a chance to protect your right to privacy.
In the UK, the response to the government’s plans has been fairly negative. Privacy groups are already preparing counter-campaigns, and authorities have been accused of fear-mongering.
Much of the government’s strategy seems to be a response to Facebook’s plans to secure their Messenger app with end-to-end encryption, something that is likely to go ahead regardless of this new PR push.
End-to-end encryption is becoming an increasingly normalized part of online communications, and despite the UK government’s vocal concerns, it may well be too late to change that direction of travel.
It now remains to be seen whether the campaign goes ahead as planned, and what effect, if any, it has on public opinion.
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