Ask the Experts

Experts discuss possible impacts of an encryption ban on privacy rights

Emmy Gnat | Head Illustrator

Services such as WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and the receiver can read the message.

Following the recent terror attack that occurred near Westminster in London, the United Kingdom Home Secretary Amber Rudd has called for an encryption ban on WhatsApp messages and other encrypted communication services.

Experts said the ban could be bad for business of technology companies, but good for security.

This statement is a result of the fact that the suspect, Khalid Masood, used WhatsApp right before the attack and because intelligence services are unable to access the messages, according to USA Today. In the attack, four people were killed and 50 people were injured as Masood deliberately ran over pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and crashed his car to railings outside the Palace of Westminster before stabbing one police officer, according to The Daily Telegraph. Masood was shot and killed on the scene.

Services such as WhatsApp use end-to-end encryption, which means only the sender and the receiver can read the message. It prevents third parties, including WhatsApp, from being able to read the messages. Every message a user sends is automatically encrypted with a lock, and only the sender and the recipient have the necessary keys to unlock the message.

Sean O’Keefe, a University Professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said the potential ban might pose a conflict of interest for the technology companies. If customers think their private information will be more accessible to entities such as the government, he said, they might be deterred from using their service, which will in turn be bad for business. The companies have to make a choice between business and the security of citizens, he said.

The initial reaction most users of the platform will have will be for their own self-interest, O’Keefe said.

People will be worried that their privacy will be compromised because they are entitled to a certain expectation of privacy, said Robert Murrett, professor of practice, public administration and international affairs at the Maxwell School. He added that many citizens are unsure of how secure their information is, not just in terms of government use but regarding commercial purposes as well.

To garner the support of citizens for a possible encryption ban, O’Keefe said the application would have to narrow both its focus and the methods used to access information and target individuals. However, it isn’t easy to narrow things down, he added, saying that refined data collection tools are necessary.

Experts agree that these potential changes occurring within the United Kingdom will likely influence American policy.

Today’s technology companies are “very global in nature” and extend across international borders, Murrett said, adding that there’s an important international dynamic in place and that one can’t treat these issues in isolation.

O’Keefe added that anytime there is a debate in a western democracy, the United States will get involved because of how global the country is.

O’Keefe and Murrett also said it’s difficult to maintain a balance between privacy and security.

Murrett said such challenges have been around for a long time, from when the first high frequency radio transmitter was created around 100 years ago. Since then, he said, security has been constantly trying to stay one step ahead. There’s always an action-reaction sequence for things that are related to domestic law enforcement and international intelligence, he added.

“This is a consistent and regular conflict between our American legal and cultural values to preserve and defend the right to privacy,” O’Keefe said, “contrasted with our absolute commitment and support of public institutions to secure our safety.”

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