Whatsapp app logo on mobile phone screen

IT body raises concerns over campaign to limit end-to-end encryption

Image credit: Vladyslav Yushynov/Dreamstime

IT experts have warned against limiting the end-to-end encryption used by apps such as WhatsApp as it would not make the internet a safer place.

Facebook has previously announced plans to roll out end-to-end encryption across its messaging services. However, a recent campaign backed by the Government warned against a wider tech industry rollout.

Critics of the technology have asked firms to find a way of allowing law-enforcement agencies to access communications while still protecting privacy, warning that otherwise the public, and particularly children, could be at greater risk of being exposed to worrying content and online predators.

But in a survey carried out by IT professional body the BCS, 78 per cent of industry professionals said they did not believe restricting the use of such encryption in messaging would protect users. The research also found a further 66 per cent of specialists said restricting such encryption would have a negative impact on protecting society at large.

The BCS launched the poll following the recent UK Government-backed ‘No Place to Hide’ campaign, warning against the further rollout of end-to-end encryption.

“We are not opposed to end-to-encryption in principle and fully support the importance of strong user privacy,” the campaign said. “Instead, our campaign is calling for social media companies to work with us to find a solution that protects privacy, without putting children at even greater risk.”

The BCS said the importance of encrypted messaging had been further highlighted recently by the people of Ukraine, including journalists in the country, who it said are increasingly using the technology to report on Russia’s invasion.

Seventy per cent of IT professionals surveyed said they were not confident that it is possible to have both truly secure encryption and the ability to check encrypted messages for criminal material.

Many industry experts said they were worried about the possibility of increased surveillance from governments, police, and the technology companies who run the online platforms themselves. Other concerns were around protecting, for instance, financial data from hackers if such encryption was undermined.

“Whilst we can appreciate the Government’s aim to make the internet a safer place, a balance has to be struck for end-to-end encryption,” said Bill Mitchell, BCS’ director of policy.

“Now is not the time to weaken technology that is so important to our security. There should be more exploration of the alternatives before we go down the road of rolling back E2EE, especially in this time of war, when secure messaging is a vital tool for truth-telling across the world.”

Mitchell said it was odd that there was more focus on a “magical backdoor" when other investigative tools aren’t being talked about. “They should look at alternatives before limiting the basic security that underpins everyone’s privacy and global free speech.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Government supports end-to-end encryption, which is an important way of protecting user privacy when implemented responsibly. But it is essential that law enforcement and security agencies can access the data they need to protect national security and prevent serious crimes, such as child sexual abuse.”

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