End-to-end encryption has long been a bugbear for law enforcement, and now it seems that the government is stepping in. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has formally written to Facebook [PDF] asking it to amend its plans for end-to-end encryption across its products.
End-to-end encryption means that messages sent between devices can only be decoded on the sender and receiver’s device. They can’t be intercepted by police, and even Facebook doesn’t know what’s in the contents of a Messenger or WhatsApp message. That, politicians argue, means that the service is providing a private space for terrorists and paedophiles to communicate with each other, away from the eyes of law enforcement.
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The letter argues that Facebook should “enable law enforcement to obtain lawful access to content in a readable and usable format,” and is signed by Attorney General William Barr, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutto and UK Home Secretary Priti Patel. Patel is involved, because the news comes at the same time as a data-sharing agreement between the UK and US is formally announced.
As the DoJ’s press release says, “the letter requests that Facebook not proceed with its end-to-end encryption plan without ensuring there will be no reduction in the safety of Facebook users and others, and without providing law enforcement court-authorised access to the content of communications to protect the public, particularly child users.”
The trouble is that these two things are mutually exclusive. There’s no such thing as a backdoor that’s only open to law enforcement and governments: you break encryption for one person, and you essentially break it for all, meaning that law-abiding citizens suffer when hackers find the exploit.
For this reason, Facebook has been quite resistant about weakening encryption in the past, even as recently as last week. “We oppose government attempts to build backdoors because they would undermine the privacy and security of our users everywhere,” a widely-shared Facebook statement read.
It looks like this battle will run and run.