The subject of online privacy has been at the center of heated debates across the world for years. Even as tech giants continue to evolve their platforms in response to consumer dynamism, it appears that Facebook, Google and Twitter have a long way to go as far as balancing legal and consumer obligations is concerned.
Looking back, Facebook Chief Mark Zuckerberg published a 2019 blog post titled A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking that detailed the social media giant’s plan to pursue end-to-end encryption for all its messaging platforms – that is, Messenger and Instagram.
It turns out that the tech company had already began experimenting with end-to-end encryption towards their roadmap to full adoption as a standard for every message.
Expectedly, Australian, British and the U.S. governments, along with the corresponding law enforcement agencies, have expressed their fears about how implementation of such a vision will possibly play out.
In Australia, the end-to-end encryption plan comes hot in the heels of previous Facebook-government wrangles about the Aussie government’s move to compel tech platforms to share advertising revenue with media entities.
While end-to-end encryption seems to provide the promise of better user experience as far as privacy is concerned, the Australian Department of Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo has said that Facebook’s encryption plan will translate to creation of its own dark web – Facebook will transform into a potential criminal paradise.
While speaking to the Senate Estimates of Australia on October 20, Pezzullo asserted that Facebook’s pursuit of end-to-end encryption will make it virtually impossible for law enforcement actors to harvest conversations on criminal subjects across the tech giant’s messaging services.
The official went on to say that criminals have been exploiting encrypted communication avenues, which has translated in the rise in child sex abuse cases involving threat actors operating in both the clear web and dark web.
What Is End-to-End Encryption?
Before we delve into the pros and cons of end-to-end encryption within context of the Facebook privacy plan, let’s take a quick look at how the tool works.
End-to-end encryption is used in secure communication where user conversations are protected by cryptographic keys are used to prevent third party access to messages.
In practice, when a user sends a message, they also share a cryptographic key that can be used to unlock the message on receipt. The unique code is designed to keep off third party access, with service providers also being unable to read the message.
The only way for an external actor to read contents of the communication channel would be to obtain the cryptographic key that is stored on the user’s device – physical access is the only sure way to obtain the unique code.
The Privacy vs. Law Enforcement Dilemma
While global governments have gone to great lengths in targeting tech platforms for infringing on users’ privacy, the same administrations are still trying to control online content for regulatory reasons.
Facebook’s encryption ambitions have thrown the general tech-government community into a state of confusion as stakeholders have compared end-to-end encryption with the crime-riddled dark web ecosystem.
The proposal is good news for users looking to benefit from online privacy, including terrorists and drug dealers, although end-to-end encryption provided critical benefits to anti-government protesters in countries such as Hong Kong and Belarus – law enforcement agencies have not been happy about it.
Nonetheless, we can easily pick out the governments’ legitimacy in worrying about the potential effects of end-to-end encryption. The 2017 London terror attack offer a concrete example about what could go wrong when social media platforms adopt the privacy too, the lead attacker had used Facebook’s end-to-end encrypted WhatsApp minutes before killing pedestrians on Westminster Bridge.