Fighting Government Crippled Encryption by Turning It Off Entirely!

Within hours of the terrible terrorist attack in Manchester earlier this week, UK politicians were already using the tragedy as a springboard to push their demands that Internet firms cripple their encryption systems and deploy a range of other Orwellian measures that would vastly weaken the privacy and security of honest citizens — while handing terrorists and other criminals the keys to our private lives, including our financial and other personal information.

This same thuggish mindset is taking root in other parts of the world, often combined with hypocritical “data localization” requirements designed to make individual nations’ citizens as vulnerable as possible to domestic surveillance operations.

There are basically four ways in which firms can react to these draconian government demands.

They could simply comply, putting their users at enormous and escalating risk, not only from government abuse but also from criminals who would exploit the resulting weak encryption environments (while using “unapproved” strong encryption to protect their own criminal activities). We could expect some firms to go this route in an effort to protect their financial bottoms lines, but from an ethical and user trust standpoint this choice is devastating.

Firms could refuse to comply. Litigation might delay the required implementation of crippled encryption, or change some of its parameters. But in the final analysis, these firms must obey national laws where they operate, or else face dramatic fines and other serious sanctions. Not all firms would have the financial ability to engage in this kind of battle — especially given the very long odds of success.

Of course, firms could indeed choose to withdraw from such markets, perhaps in conjunction with geoblocking of domestic users in those countries to meet government prohibitions against strong encryption. Pretty awful prospects.

There is another possibility though — that I’ll admit up front would be highly controversial. Rather than crippling those designated encryption systems in those countries under government orders, firms could choose to disable those encryption systems entirely!

I know that this sounds counterintuitive, but please hang with me for a few minutes!

In this context we’re talking mainly about social media systems where (at least currently) there are no government requirements that messages and postings be encrypted at all. For example, we’re not speaking here of financial or medical sites that might routinely have their own encryption requirements mandated by law (and frankly, where governments usually already have ways of getting at that data).

What governments want now is the ability to spy on our personal Internet communications, in much the same manner as they’ve long spied on traditional telephone voice communications.

An axiom of encryption is that in most situations, weak encryption can be much worse for users than no encryption at all! This may seem paradoxical, but think about it. If you know that you don’t have any encryption at all, you’re far more likely to take care in what you’re transmitting through those channels, since you know that they’re vulnerable to spying. If you believe that you’re protected by encryption, you’re more likely to speak freely.

But the worst case is if you believe that you’re protected by encryption but you really aren’t, because the encryption system is purposely weak and crippled. Users in this situation tend to keep communicating as if they were well protected, when in reality they are highly vulnerable.

Perhaps worse, this state of affairs permits governments to give lip service to the claim that they favor encryption — when in reality the crippled encryption that they permit is a horrific security and privacy farce.

So here’s the concept. If governments demand weak encryption, associated legal battles have ended, and firms still want to serve users in the affected countries, then those firms should consider entirely disabling message/posting encryption on those social media platforms in the context of those countries — and do so as visibly and loudly as possible.

This could get complicated quickly when considering messages/posts that involve multiple countries with and without encryption restrictions, but basically whenever user activities would involve nations with those restrictions, there should be warnings, banners, perhaps even some obnoxious modal pop-ups — to warn everyone involved that these communications are not encrypted — and to very clearly explain that this is the result of government actions against their own citizens. 

Don’t let governments play fast and loose with this. Make sure that users in those countries — and users in other countries that communicate with them — are constantly reminded of what these governments have done to their own citizens.

Also, strong third-party encryption systems not under government controls would continue to be available, and efforts to make these integrate more easily with the large social media firms’ platforms should accelerate.

This is all nontrivial to accomplish and there are a variety of variations on the basic concept. But the goal should be to make it as difficult as possible for governments to mandate crippled encryption and then hypocritically encourage their citizens to keep communicating on these systems as if nothing whatever had changed.

We all want to fight terrorism. But government mandates weakening encryption are fundamentally flawed, in that over time they will not be effective at preventing evildoers from using strong encryption, but do serve to put all law-abiding citizens at enormous risk.

We must resist government efforts to paint crippled encryption targets on the backs of our loved ones, our broader societies, and ourselves.