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Accessing encrypted communications

The red herring in the security debate

There are two aspects that don't seem to be part of the discussion around law enforcement access to encrypted communications, but both are legitimate concerns.

One is trust, with citizens increasingly concerned that their own governments are the biggest threat actor. This is especially of concern given the hyper-politicisation of the supposed need for vague blanket security access. If people are more afraid of their government than criminals, or even other state actors, that means that there is a real trust issue.

After all, it was the revealing of pervasive and indiscriminate mass US government surveillance by Snowden that prompted a lot of tech companies to go for end-to-end encryption, and not really North Korea, Russia or Iran, whose attempts had been far more targeted.

The other issue is corruption, in the aspect of that it is weak points of certain people in the information access process that makes opening doors into encrypted information streams weak in a practical sense. That weakness can be bribes to individual police and telco employees, or revenge actions by those same people. Without technical access, these weaknesses are largely irrelevant, as end-to-end encryption completely thwarts such incidental human weak points.

The whole point of access to encrypted data is about being able to pre-emptively thwart possible criminal or terrorist action, as evidence of intent. However, without actually doing anything else that takes practical steps to make those threat actions a reality, they have done nothing more than chat about it.

Of course, paedophiles can send each other pictures and videos over encrypted channels, but they have to land unencrypted somewhere on peoples' computers, which is what is really needed to convict. However, it is clear that such people have been shielded from access by the law by very powerful societal institutions, including the police and politicians themselves, and that has been shown to be far more pervasive, yet still more visible to those who wanted to actually see than their formerly open-channel communications. This is an excuse for pervasive surveillance, not stopping paedophiles.

Subsequent investigations of a lot terrorist actions, including 9/11, has shown a general failure of law agencies to properly address obvious indications of the preliminary activities for those incidents. Having the extra information from encrypted channels is not going to help if obvious physical actions are being ignored.

Basically, this focusing on the technical aspect of getting access to information is misleading if there is such gross systemic failures in properly identifying the preliminary events that lead to the threats. If the threat actors aren't identified, encryption will not help. No, what such requests for mass surveillance are about is that it is an acknowledgement that the requesting agencies do not have their acts together, and that they want the backdoors for mass surveillance to scan all citizens' communications for possible suspicious conversations.

Of course people are justified in rejecting that because it is a mass pre-emptive invasion of privacy that is really just a fishing expedition. We see this type of thinking at work with the push for facial recognition, as it involves everyone in public being captured by video to possibly catch the few actually doing anything illegal. We know that access to more personal information just gives more opportunities for nefarious usage, which the weak and greedy will take advantage of. Better to not provide temptation rather than relying upon wishful thinking when it comes to human nature.

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