The US Department of Justice says it’s wary of End-to-End Encryption being used for child sex trafficking. Though it acknowledges encryption’s pluses, when and how exceptions could be made, remains unclear.
On Oct. 11, 2020, the United States Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs released an international statement expressing concern over end-to-end encryption. Though the DOJ accepted that encryption is a vital part of many civil and human rights battles, it stressed that it could also have a dark side.
The statement claimed that end-to-end encryption posed a severe challenge to public safety and vulnerable groups. The statement specifically singled out the exploitation of children as a major concern.
Call to Arms
The statement specifically requested that technology companies work with the government in fighting these crimes. Specifically, the DOJ wanted companies to provide a way for law agencies to decode encrypted messages. These “severe risks” are significant enough, the statement suggests, that the privacy of encryption must sometimes be compromised.
The DOJ’s open letter did not limit its reach to the US. The letter was signed by officials from several countries aside from the United States, including Australia, New Zealand, the UK, India, and Japan.
The Problem with End-to-End Encryption
End-to-end encryption allows two users to send information over a network without any third party access to it. This is often used in messaging services, or in the case of Bitcoin, currency exchange.
However, the DOJ feels that serious crimes and items of national security should not be protected as free speech in the way that most messages are.
Justice Department officials cited a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) report from 2019, which suggested that end-to-end encryption needed an exception to safeguard children. The report implied that child traffickers use encryption to elude authorities.
Likewise, a 2019 5rights report accepted the importance of encryption and sought an exception for fighting child abuse. The WeProtect Global Alliance echoed this.
Still, much end-to-end encryption does not shroud crime. Recently, protesters in Belarus used encryption to communicate with one another and the outside world during anti-government protests. This is an example of the positive use of encryption for human rights.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies use this technology not only to maintain privacy but also to allow for a “trust-less” system. In the political sphere, encryption allows citizens of a closed country to access other currencies, for example, when their own currencies might be seeing runaway inflation.
Without encrypted protection, these uses would likely be restricted by local authorities.
Not everyone believes a solution that compromises privacy can be found. Digibyte Coin founder Jared Tate tweeted that data privacy can never be guaranteed with the possibility of back door entry. Cryptography and decentralization, he said, were more important than ever.
The US DOJ & Governments around the world just called for an END to End to End Encryption. You cannot ensure data privacy by mandating backdoors. This is never going to work. Decentralized #blockchain cryptography is now more important than ever! https://t.co/3DdltHKA6V
— Jared Tate ©️ (@jaredctate) October 12, 2020
Making the Law
Some US legislation has already been put forward to stop end-to-end encryption for certain technology companies. These laws make service providers and hardware companies provide solutions for law enforcement to access encrypted files.
The law, introduced to the Senate on June 6., 2020 by Senator Lindsey Graham, is under review by the Judiciary Committee. Another limiting piece of legislation, the EARN IT Act, would make a government scanner vet messages for suspicious activity.
The DOJ insisted that any efforts to limit encryption would consider the important privacy of citizens and human rights.
No solution to satisfy defenders of both privacy and crime were put forward. However, much of this legislation mirrors the government monitoring programs unveiled by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. At least this time, lawmakers are letting the public know.