Why end-to-end encryption is essential for national security and public safety

A video explaining the basics behind end-to-end encryption and why Index on Censorship believes that strong encryption is essential for national security and public safety and that this should be reflected in the Online Safety Bill. Hear from Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Dr Phil Zimmermann, creator of Pretty Good Privacy and Ross J Anderson, professor of security engineering at the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge.

An insidious and unlegislated form of policing?

On a housing estate, somewhere in north-west London, a dispute said to be between rival groups of young men, apparently rages on. From this quagmire of social deprivation emerges Chinx (OS) who, released from an eight-year custodial sentence at the four-year mark, starts dropping bars like his very life depended on it. And, in a way it does. Because for boys like Chinx, young, black and poor, there is only one way out and that is to become the next Stormzy. Only, two behemoths stand in his way: the Metropolitan Police and their apparent “side man” Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram.

In January 2022, Chinx posted a video clip of a drill music track called Secrets Not Safe. Following a request by the Metropolitan Police arguing that the post could lead to retaliatory gang-based violence , Meta removed the post and Chinx’s Instagram account was deleted.

Meta’s decision has now been challenged by the Oversight Board, a quasi-independent adjudicator conceived to police the online giant’s application of its own policies but funded by the company.

The Board recently condemned the company’s decision to remove Chinx’s post and delete his account as not complying with Meta’s own stated values and with wider human rights considerations.

As part of its review of Meta’s decision, the Board made a Freedom of Information Act request to the Met over its requests to remove content from various online platforms. Whilst a good proportion of their responses to the request were unhelpful bordering on obstructive, what it did disclose was troubling.

In the year to the end of May 2022, the Met asked online platforms, including Meta, to remove 286 pieces of content. Every single one of those requests related to drill music. No other music genre was represented. Some 255 of the Met’s requests resulted in the removal of content, a success rate of over 90%.

The decision makes for illuminating, if worrying, reading when one considers the potential chilling impact Meta’s actions may have on the freedom of expression of an already suppressed, marginalised and some would argue, over-policed section of our community. Four areas of concern emerge.

Law enforcement access to online platforms

Instagram, in common with other applications, has reporting tools available to all users to make complaints. Whilst it may be that law enforcement organisations use such tools, these organisations also have at their disposal what amounts to direct access to these online platform’s internal complaints procedures. When law enforcement makes a request to take content down, Meta deals with such a request “at escalation”. This triggers a process of investigation by Meta’s internal specialist teams who investigate the complaint. Investigation includes analysis of the content by Meta to decipher whether there is a “veiled threat”.

This case demonstrates a worrying pattern in my view; namely the level of privileged access that law enforcement has to Meta’s internal enforcement teams, as evidenced by correspondence the Board saw in this case.

Lack of evidence

What became clear during the exposition of facts by the Board was that despite the apparent need for a causal link between the impugned content and any alleged “veiled threat” or “threat of violence” law enforcement advanced no evidence in support of their complaint. In the light of the fact, as all parties appeared to accept, that this content itself was not unlawful, this is shocking.

On the face of it then, Meta has a system allowing for fast-tracked, direct access to their complaints procedure which may result in the removal of content, without any cogent evidence to support a claim that the content would lead to real life violence or the threat thereof.

This omission is particularly stark as, as in this case, the violence alluded to in the lyrics took place approximately five years prior to the uploading of the clip. This five-year gap, as the Board commented, made it all the more important for real and cogent evidence to be cited in support of removal of the content. We ought to remind ourselves here that the Board found that in this case there was no evidence of a threat, veiled or otherwise, of real-life violence.

Lack of appeal

Meta’s internal systems dictate that if a complaint is taken “at escalation” – as all government requests to take down content are, and this includes requests made by the Met Police –  this means there is no internal right of appeal for the user. Chinx (OS) and the other accounts affected by this decision had no right to appeal the decision with Meta nor with the Oversight Board. The result is that a decision that, in some cases, may result in the loss of an income stream as well as an erosion of the right to express oneself freely, may go unchallenged by the user. In fact, as Chinx (OS) revealed during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme, he was not made aware at any point during the process why his account had been deleted and the content removed.

The Board itself commented that: “The way this relationship works for escalation-only policies, as in this case, brings into question Meta’s ability to independently assess government actors’ conclusions that lack detailed evidence.”


Each of the three shortcomings above revealed by the Board within Meta’s procedures are worrying enough; but, coupled with the disproportionate impact this system has upon black males (the main authors and consumers of this content) it veers dangerously close to systemic racism.

The findings of the Oversight Board’s FOI request on the Met’s activities in relation to online platforms clearly back this up.

The Digital Rights Foundation argues that while some portray drill music as a rallying call for gang violence, it in fact serves as a medium for youth, in particular black and brown youth, to express their discontent with a system that perpetuates discrimination and exclusion.

An insidious and backdoor form of policing

The cumulative effect of Meta’s actions arguably amounts to an insidious and unlegislated form of policing. Without the glare of public scrutiny, with no transparency and no tribunal to test or comment on the lack of evidence, the Met have succeeded in securing punishment (removal of content could be argued to be a punishment given that it may lead to loss of income) through the back door against content that was not, in and of itself unlawful.

As the Board pointed out in their decision, for individuals in minority or marginalised groups, the risk of cultural bias against their content is especially acute. Art, the Board noted, is a particularly important and powerful expression of “voice”, especially for people from marginalised groups creating art informed by their experiences. Drill music offers young people, and particularly young black people, a means of creative expression. As the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights has stated, “…representations of the real must not be confused with the real… Hence, artists should be able to explore the darker side of humanity, and to represent crimes… without being accused of promoting these.”

The right to express yourself freely, even if what you say may offend sections of our community, is one of those areas that truly tests our commitment to this human right.

Junket journalism is taking off in China

Twenty-three years after writing his best known work, Red Star Over China, Edgar Snow returned to China in 1960 to investigate claims that a radical agrarian reform programme had resulted in devastating famine. “I diligently searched, without success, for starving people or beggars to photograph … I do not believe there is famine in China,” Snow wrote

Snow was wrong. The famine in China was both real and devastating. It is estimated as many as 30 million died in it. Snow’s bias lens had ghostly echoes with Walter Duranty’s reporting from Ukraine, during the Holodomor, the mass famines engineered by Stalin. Only when faced with overwhelming evidence did he eventually concede that the genocide occurred, “to put it brutally – you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” he said.  

In information vacuums, common during times of conflict such as the civil conflict in Syria, as well as in areas controlled by authoritarian regimes, reporting from independent journalists can quickly define or redefine the public’s perception of a regime or situation. While journalists can play a powerful role in challenging censorship and propaganda from the state, they can also act as the state’s servants. Such was the case for both Snow and Duranty, whose rose-tinted views of the countries impacted global perceptions. Herein lies the point – those who claim to be independent reporters can be incredibly useful to the state, sometimes more so than those working within state media, because the notion that they are independent carries with it a level of authority and weight. 

The use of “junket journalism” to obscure reporting on crimes against humanity has only grown in prominence and sophistication. Nowhere has this been more evident than in China where the government has co-opted a range of journalists and social media influencers to help strengthen the CCP’s control over its narrative and obscure legitimate scrutiny of a number of important issues, most notably the genocide of the Uyghur population. Recent party documents and officials have emphasised the need to bolster the CCP political line, and inject positivity into the CCP and China’s image. Current President Xi Jinping said, “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their new tentacles”. 

A recent International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) survey confirmed that “China is conducting a media outreach campaign in almost every continent” with the 31 developed and 27 developing countries that participated in the survey similarly targeted. The researchers told the Guardian, “China is also wooing journalists from around the world with all-expenses-paid tours and, perhaps most ambitiously of all, free graduate degrees in communication, training scores of foreign reporters each year to ‘tell China’s story well’”. 

While many other countries, including established democracies, have sought to influence and shape independent reporting through tours, capacity building opportunities and other tactics, the CCP’s overt prioritisation of journalism that “depends upon a narrative discipline that precludes all but the party-approved version of events” raises significant concerns as to its intentions.

In this effort to shape global news, the CCP is advantaged by its huge pockets. It has spent around $6.6 billion since 2009 on strengthening its global media presence, supposedly investing over $2.8 billion alone in media and adverts. Sarah Cook, NED reporter and researcher, emphasised that “no country is immune”. 

This ambition is best summarised by the Belt and Road News Network (BRNN), which includes 182 media organisations from 86 countries as members, and a Council, which includes 26 countries, including Spain, France, Russia, Netherlands and the UK. The launch of the BRNN was announced in a paid advertorial in The Telegraph produced by People’s Daily. In September 2019, BRNN hosted a workshop for international journalists in Beijing as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the People’s Republic of China, which was organised in partnership with the State Council Information Office of China. It included a visit to the offices of People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency and other “central media units”, as well as trips to “Shaanxi, Zhejiang, Guizhou and Guangdong provinces for interviews and researches in order to personally experience China’s unremitting efforts and fruitful results in poverty alleviation, ecological civilization, big data industry, urban planning, and independent intellectual property rights.” 

While the workshop was attended by representatives from 46 mainstream media outlets from 26 Latin American and African countries, it would be overly simplistic to suggest that China is only focusing on countries from the global south. Since 2009, the China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) has taken 127 US journalists from 40 US outlets to China. This foundation has been identified as working with China’s United Front as highlighted by US Senator Ted Cruz, in a letter to the President of the University of Texas at Austin, who stated that “[t]oday, CUSEF and the united front are the external face of the CCP’s internal authoritarianism”.

The IFJ report notes that “the Chinese Embassy has sought out journalists working for Islamic media, organising special media trips to showcase Xinjiang as a travel destination and an economic success story.” Xinjiang and the treatment of Uyghur communities is a prominent area in which the CCP has focused its efforts. After a visit to Xinjiang, Harald Brüning, author and director of the Macau Post Daily, stated that “the anti-China forces’ allegations of genocide are preposterous judging by what the Macao journalists, most of whom had not visited the region before, saw and heard in Xinjiang.” In his piece, Brüning did not disguise the genesis of his trip, exclaiming in the third paragraph “[t]he extraordinarily well-organised tour took place at the invitation of the Office of the Commissioner of the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China in the Macao Special Administrative Region.” The piece is heavily framed around rebutting existing reporting – labelled in the piece as lies – including the use of forced labour in the cotton fields of Xinjiang, as well as decrying the “brutality the religious extremists and separatists [have] resorted to”. 

However an all-expenses paid junket does not guarantee full control of a journalist’s coverage. Olsi Jazexhi (below), a Muslim Canadian-Albanian journalist and historian sought a way to travel to Xinjiang because he was sceptical of the dominant narrative in the West that Muslims were being oppressed in China. He approached the Chinese embassy in Albania who invited him on a trip to Xinjiang with other “China-friendly journalists”. Once in Xinjiang, Jazexhi was shocked by the detainees’ testimonies of having been jailed for simple expressions of their religious identity, such as reading the Quran or encouraging others to pray. In Urumqi, he was lectured by state officials who equated Islam with terrorism and was shocked by the number of empty mosques or those repurposed into stores. 

Olsi Jazexhi (right) listens to a handler during a tour of a mosque in Aksu city, Xinjiang in August 2019. Photo: Provided by Olsi Jazexhi

Other journalists who have tried to move away from the organised tours have faced a number of difficulties. When journalists have attempted to film camps that the government has not previously cleared for access, they have been turned away by local authorities. Road works or car crashes suddenly block their way and when the journalists attempt to return the next day, the roadworks suddenly reappear again. Members of a Reuters crew reported being tailed by a rotating cast of plain-clothed minders and “within an hour of the reporters leaving their hotel in the city of Kashgar through a back gate, barbed wire was erected across the exit and fire escapes on their floor were locked.”

While influencing journalists can sometimes be difficult, the expansion of blogging and social media influencing has opened up another avenue for state intervention. Travel vloggers who visit authoritarian countries say they just want to educate their viewers and avoid politics. Irish travel vlogger Janet Newenham told Al Jazeera after a controversial visit to Syria that “every country deserves to be shown in a different way and in a positive light even if most stuff about there has always been negative”. However, what can seem innocuous can take on more explicit political implications. “A lot of these vloggers are saying they’re apolitical in this and I’m sure that they are but the issue is, when you’re entering a conflict zone, your direct presence there becomes political,” researcher and adjunct professor, Sophie Kathyrn Fullerton told Al Jazeera. 

A similar trend is increasingly evident in China. “I’m here because lots of people, right now, outside of China, want to know what Xinjiang is like,” says British vlogger, The China Traveller, at the start of a video, which focuses on him sampling a variety of local food while Uyghur women appeared to spontaneously dance behind him. Videos of this genre can be seen as part of what has been labelled the CCP’s project to “Disneyfy” Xinjiang. Uyghur culture has been co-opted by the state and amplified as a tourist attraction to change the narrative and drown out reports of genocide against the Uyghur community. In another video, The China Traveller praises the central government for rebuilding sections of the city, while failing to address the government’s other influence on the Xinjiang skyline: the mass demolition of religious institutions. 

While Chinese culture is celebrated by The China Traveller and other vloggers in Xinjiang, French photographer Andrew Wack had a different experience when he returned to the region in 2019. Speaking to Wired a year after his trip, Wack commented on the stark absence of “men aged 20 to 60, many of whom had likely been rounded up and herded into indoctrination camps”. Throughout his visit, he was followed by plain-clothes police officers “and at checkpoints he was sometimes asked to show his photographs. On one occasion, he was asked to delete images”.

Many vloggers and journalists obscure any coordination or funding from Chinese bodies, or underplay how it may affect their coverage. Lee Barrett, a British vlogger, states in a video, “we go on some sponsored trips to places … our accommodation is paid for, our travel is paid for … nobody tells us what to say, nobody tells us what to film”. Due to the opaque nature of these relationships, it is impossible to interrogate the influence this type of support has on the vloggers’ reporting. However at times this veil is lifted. In a number of popular videos, minders sent by the Chinese state to monitor another vloggers’ trip can be clearly seen monitoring their behaviour.

When the BBC’s lead China reporter, John Sudworth, was invited into Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps, he was presented with a highly choreographed and Disneyfied presentation of Xinjiang culture, which apparently even moved the Chinese officials accompanying the BBC crew to tears. However, Sudworth’s commitment to “peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could” led him to scrutinise everything, including scraps of graffiti written in Uyghur and Chinese. This approach has had lasting consequences; he now reports on China from abroad, having had his visa revoked. 

In modern day China, independent reporting from foreigners is one of the few avenues left in order to scrutinise power beyond the dominant state narrative. However, through the funding and coordination of junkets, training opportunities and other tactics, the Chinese state has followed in the footsteps of Assad’s Syria to try and control the message these foreigners send out into the world. This turns the principles of journalism against itself and manipulates the free expression environment in favour of the state. 

Edgar Snow remains venerated in China. In 2021, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying proclaimed on Twitter: “China hopes to see and welcome more Edgar Snows of this new era among foreign journalists”. John Sudworth provides a powerful counterweight, reminding us that we must “peer beneath the official messaging and hold it up to as much scrutiny as we could”.

  • The authors approached The China Traveller and Lee Barrett for comment for this article. No response had been received by the time of going to press.

Questions that Sunak should have asked Mohammad bin Salman at G20…(but probably didn’t)

Earlier this morning the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20. According to comments made on Twitter they: welcomed strong trade relations and collaboration in defence and security; committed to deepening investment ties, and discussed the importance of making progress on social reforms. 

While we do not know what was said in the meeting, there is no clarity as to whether this included the increasing clampdown on free expression in Saudi Arabia that has hastened under bin Salman’s leadership. The UK Government has time and time again reiterated its commitment to championing human rights both at home and across the globe but in this case the silence is deafening. 

It is not as if there are a scarcity of issues that need to be addressed.

What the Prime Minister could have asked

  1. Under the guise of cybercrime, the Specialized Criminal Court has been increasingly used to target people who are realising their right to free expression to participate in protected and civic dialogue. This includes Salma al-Shehab, Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani, ten Egyptian Nubians and Dr Lina al-Sharif. What steps are the Saudi authorities taking to ensure the court works in line with international human rights standards to protect free expression?
  2. Salma al-Shehab was in the UK when she posted comments on Twitter that proved to be the basis of her arrest and imprisonment when she returned to Saudi Arabia. To what extent do Saudi laws impact on dissidents outside of the country and what protections are in place to ensure Saudi Arabia does not damage the right to free expression in other countries, including its allies and trading partners? 
  3. It has been reported that the app, Kollona Amn, or We Are All Security, which is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play app store was used to draw the Saudi authority’s attention to the tweet sent by Salma al-Shehab. This app has been developed by the Saudi authorities, so can you advise as to what safeguards are in place to ensure the app cannot be used again to violate a Saudi citizen’s right to free expression? 
  4. Bodies and individuals connected to Saudi Arabia are the joint second largest shareholders in the social media platform Twitter. At the same time, a former Twitter manager has been convicted in the USA of spying for Saudi Arabia, accessing private data on users critical of the kingdom’s government. In light of Saudi’s corporate interests in the platform, as well as its commitment to international law and human rights standards, have any steps been taken to ensure that data from the platform is not being used to target dissidents who are engaging in protected acts of free expression?
  5. As reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google is setting up, in partnership with the state-owned company Saudi Aramco, a data centre in Saudi Arabia for its cloud computing platform serving business customers. What safeguards are in place to ensure that the centre is protected against improper interference?
  6. At a time when Saudi Arabia has started opening itself up to tourism and is spending huge amounts of money trying to attract visitors to the Kingdom what is the country doing to reassure those who visit who come from countries with a strong commitment to free expression that they will not be arbitrarily detained or worse if they express their views openly?

A few questions Rishi should have asked himself (but probably didn’t) before the meeting

  1. Do trade deals and geopolitical relationships with authoritarian governments trump the UK’s commitment to free expression and human rights?
  2. What are we doing to secure the release of Salma al-Shehab and others connected to the UK who have been imprisoned across the globe for realising their right to free expression, such as Alaa Abd el-Fattah in Egypt and Sophia Huang Xueqin in China?
  3. Is there anything the UK can do to better protect the public’s right to free expression, particularly those residing in the UK who are increasingly being targeted by the extraterritorial extension of laws by authoritarian regimes beyond their borders?

A couple of questions Rishi should ask himself in a darkened room when no one else is around

  1. Is the UK still a leader in protecting free expression and human rights across the globe? 
  2. Was it ever?