Why we need to protect end-to-end encryption

For over fifty years, Index on Censorship has supported dissidents, journalists and activists in part by training them on the most current technology. In recent years that has included how to use encryption and encrypted communication apps, helping them to protect themselves from repressive regimes in the easiest and most comprehensive ways possible. This training was especially necessary when accessing encryption proved to be a specialist pursuit, involving intensive training, helping people on the ground to understand the options and downloading often complex peer-to-peer messaging apps.

Now, thankfully, encryption is everywhere; human rights defenders, journalists and MPs use platforms like Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp to exchange everything from gossip to public interest data. Encryption is critical for investigative journalists who need to communicate with sources and to protect their investigations against hostile actors, whether states or criminal gangs.

And for all of us encryption has its uses: sending family photos and sharing personal information. After all, who hasn’t sent their bank details to a friend?

Telegram is used by activists, journalists and politicans. Photo: Christian Wiediger/Unsplash

For Index on Censorship, protecting encryption is a critical frontline in the fight for freedom of expression. Free speech isn’t just about the words themselves: it is the freedom to exchange information, the freedom to gather information and the freedom to confide ideas and thoughts to others without the risk of arrest and detention. Encryption is now central to our collective ability to exercise the right to freedom of expression.

Five years ago, Jamie Bartlett wrote for Index on Censorship about how his experience of police intimidation in Croatia, a democratic EU member state, changed his view on encryption. In Jamie’s case it offered a secure means of communicating with a source who the authorities had made it clear they did not want him to speak to.

Today, in too many states, encryption is now essential. As we speak the reality on the ground in authoritarian regimes including China, Hong Kong, Belarus and Russia, the difference between using an encrypted messaging app to express yourself, or unencrypted communications will mean the difference between freedom and imprisonment, if not worse.

Promoting and defending encryption is essential for any organisation that promotes and defends free speech. That’s why Index on Censorship is delighted to announce that we’ve received a grant from WhatsApp, the messaging app, to support our work in defending encryption. The grant of £150,000 will be used for our general work in defending digital freedom and our work streams will not be determined by any one other than my team at Index. From our perspective this grant is incredibly welcome as it will allow us to develop new content that explains the importance of encryption to the public, allows us to get new legal advice on why encryption should be protected as a fundamental defence of our human rights, as well as bringing new voices into the debate on why encryption is so critical to defend free speech.

As with any grant, the grantee has no influence whatsoever over Index on Censorship policy positions or our work itself. Index has had its criticisms of Meta (WhatsApp’s parent company) in the past and I’m sure we will in the future, and we’ll continue to speak freely to any government or company.

Right now, we’re continuing to argue for a pause to the UK government’s rush to push through its flawed Online Safety Bill, ensuring we have the opportunity to work with Ministers to amend the bill to remove the flawed ‘legal but harmful’ provisions in the legislation (as demolished by Gavin Millar QC’s power legal opinion for Index) and also ensure the potential undermining of encryption is taken out of this legislation.

We’ve got a lot to do – but the political weather is changing in the right direction.

A new chance to protect freedom of expression online

“Unintended consequences”, “ideologically incoherent”, “won’t change culture or make us safer”.

I have written all these words and many more about the British Government’s Online Safety Bill.  Index on Censorship has spent the last eighteen months campaigning against the worst excesses of the Online Safety Bill and how it would undermine freedom of expression online.

Our lines have been clear:

1. What is legal to say offline should be legal online.

2. End to end encryption should not be undermined.

3. Online anonymity needs to be protected.

The current proposals that were progressing through the British Parliament undermined each of these principles and were going to set a new standard of speech online which would have led to speech codes, heavily censored platforms, no secure online messaging and a threat to online anonymity which would have undermined dissidents living in repressive regimes.

So honestly, I am relieved that the government has, at almost the last minute, paused the legislation.

I am not opposed to regulation, I do not for a second believe that the internet is a nice place to spend time and nor would I advocate that there shouldn’t be many more protections for children and those who are vulnerable online.  We do need regulation to limit children’s exposure to illegal and inappropriate content but we need to do it in such a way that protects all of our rights.

This legislation, in its current iteration, failed to do that, it was a disaster for freedom of expression online.  The proposed “Legal but Harmful’ category of speech would have led to over deletion by online platforms on a scale never seen before.  Algorithms aren’t people and frankly they will struggle to identify nuance, context or satire or even regional colloquialisms.  With fines and the threat of prison sentences, platforms will obviously err on the side of caution and the unintended consequence would be mass deletion.

So today, we welcome the fact that the legislation has been paused and we call on the new prime minister and the next secretary of state to think again in the autumn about what we are actually trying to achieve when we regulate online platforms.  Because honestly, we won’t be able to make the internet nicer by waving a magic wand and removing everything unpleasant – we need to be more imaginative in our approach and consider the wider cultural and educational impact.

So, as I have said in the media overnight, this is a fundamentally broken bill – the next prime minister needs a total rethink.  It would give tech executives like Nick Clegg and Mark Zuckerberg massive amounts of control over what we all can say online, would make the UK the first democracy in the world to break encrypted messaging apps, and it would make people who have experienced abuse online less safe by forcing platforms to delete vital evidence.

Let’s start again.

Index calls on governments to ensure encrypted tools are available to public

Index joined 52 other civil society organisations as well as private companies and security researchers in calling on governments to allow technology companies to offer strong encryption tools such as Signal or WhatsApp to the public.

The statement highlights the dangers to the security and privacy of billions of internet users around the world, should governments enforce the removal of end-to-end encryption protection on consumer messaging services, which are often used by journalists on assignments. It also points out that building “back doors” just for “good actors” is not possible.

According to the letter sent to US, British and Australian ministers: “Technology companies could not give governments back door access to encrypted communications without also weakening the security of critical infrastructure, and the devices and services upon which the national security and intelligence communities themselves rely.”

The letter goes on to describe the numerous problems critical national infrastructure, industry, businesses and private individuals would face if such ‘backdoor access’ was granted.

The appeal comes as a response to a joint letter by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, and her US and Australian counterparts in October, and following a United States Department of Justice event describing encrypted communications tools as ‘lawless spaces’.

The full sourced statement, and list of signatories can be found here: https://newamericadotorg.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/Coalition_Response_Letter_-_Encryption_DOJ_event_and_letter_to_Facebook.pdf

India’s social media “peace force”

(Image: Shutterstock)

(Image: Shutterstock)

A month has passed since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India, and brought the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party) back into power. Much has been written about his government, with observers either hailing him as an economic messiah who will fix India’s dwindling economy or a divisive politician who has built his career on the back of communalism.

Those watching freedoms, especially of free speech and the media, are among the people apprehensive about life under Modi’s government. While the prime minister himself has blogged about the importance of free expression, recent arrests, including of citizens directly critical of him, paint a worrying picture. Additionally, the rise of “communal posts” on social media, real or planed, have lead to violence on the ground, and a debate about how best to police social media and free speech online.

In June, a young Muslim IT graduate lost his life to an angry mob in the city of Pune, Maharashtra, due to violence that erupted after morphed pictures of a historical figure appeared on Facebook and WhatsApp. The pictures were said to be triggers for crowds to damage shops and public transport, ultimately resulting in communal violence and the loss of an innocent life. However, reports from the Anti Terror Squad of the Maharashtra police indicate that the outbreak of violence following the uploaded picture does not seem sporadic or unplanned.

The state government has issued familiar warnings about the misuse of social media by groups that are looking to incite communal tension. Home Minister, R. R. Patil, was quoted as saying that “anti-social elements are posting inflammatory posts to stoke hatred, bitterness and disharmony between sects”, warning that such posts could result in action not just against those who post the photos, but also those who “like” them. Of course, this was the same state which saw two girls were arrested last year for allegedly sparking communal violence — one for writing a Facebook update, and the other girl simply for “liking” it. Therefore, any action by the government needs to be tempered by what the fallout could be for ordinary citizens and their right to free speech.

But authorities are not alone in seeking a solution to the problem of potentially inflammatory social media postings — civil society groups are also trying novel ideas to counter the trend. Ravi Ghate, a social entrepreneur and founder of a community SMS newsletter in Maharashtra, has banded together with like-minded folks to form a group on Facebook called “Social Peace Force”. Amassing over 18,000 members in ten days, the mission of the group is to “stop anti-social messages on Facebook” by reporting them as spam. “It’s the easiest and technological way to fight the culprits who are spreading anti-national messages/images and stopping ourselves from development!” is the logic the group adheres to. Many of the new members have posted comments indicating their genuine desire to help stop the spread of abusive and communal messages. Therefore, once identified, all members of the group will report a message or posting to Facebook thereby pressurising them to remove the post before it can do any more damage. The group has also instituted a panel of experts who are meant to examine any troubling post and give the go-ahead for the group to act.

What has spurred this move? “How many times can you go to court,” Ghate told Index. “It is too expensive. And the problem is that by the time the police takes down the content, the riot has already taken place.” For them, “suppressing content at the source” in a timely manner is key. A technological solution within the boundaries of Facebook’s own rules of engagement seems to some a far more pragmatic solution than going to the courts again and again.

Seen from a broader lens however, the group’s solution seems to be to shift the onus from the courts to decide the parameters of free expression and “objectionable” content, to big, profit-making, multinational corporates. What might seem today a no-brainer because of some obviously mischievous content, could in time, pose an interesting dilemma: Should social media giants control the boundaries of (social media based) speech in countries such as India, based on their own internal policies, and not the laws of the land? And all this, because of a push by the citizens themselves, to bypass courts and go directly to the corporates.

It is ironic that “Big Brother’ – which is what some newspaper headlines called the group – when translated into Hindi could be interpreted as “elder brother”, indicating a protective instinct, which certainly seems to be the case here. The current mandate of the group is only to focus on religious content to keep “social harmony”. That in itself is not a straightforward task; just ask Wendy Doniger, author of ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’. However, this and the many spinoff groups they will inspire could morph into something they did not intend. Legitimate art, literature, satire and other forms of expression could become victims of the mob. Then there is danger of more organised groups and political parties taking to social media directly to suppress content — especially political critique — on a regular basis. And finally, those who wish to subvert social media platforms to have an excuse to incite violence on the street, will certainly find more creative ways to do so.

There is of course, the other side of the coin. Will Facebook remove content that has been pre-determined to be objectionable when faced with a large number of people reporting it? The simple answer is, we don’t know. Facebook has its own community standards, and these cover a broad range of topics, including the following: “Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”

And a recent experiment by an Indian think-tank revealed that Facebook did not necessarily remove content flagged as objectionable by users, solely on the basis of it being flagged. As Facebook told them: “We reviewed the post you reported for harassment and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” It is quite possible that the newly formed Social Peace Force will feel let down by Facebook as well, if content is not removed immediately. What happens then?

However, this latest development harks back to the problems with India’s current legal mechanisms. India’s IT Act has become infamous for a certain Section 66(A) which can be used to arrest people for information used for the purposes of “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will”. Public outrage at wrongful arrests led to the courts passing an order that no person would be arrested without “prior approval from an officer not below the rank of inspector general of police”. At the same time, the establishment is not above slapping graver charges (such as inciting communal violence) under other sections of Indian law — including the Indian Penal Code — for fairly innocuous activity. This has lead to some amount of distrust at the government’s own commitment to freedom of expression.

Of course, citizens have a right to appeal to social media platforms if they take offense to any content posted there. The point remains, however, that maintaining communal harmony and law and order is a tricky and layered problem. The role of the state, and the loss of confidence citizens have in it, must be addressed as well. Earlier solutions have included the state governments of Jammu and Kashmir preempting violence by switching off social media and YouTube for a few days, in the wake of burgeoning riots around the world because of the video “The Innocence of Muslims”. At another time, the government of India restricted text messages to five a day to curtail vicious rumours targeting a minority community settled in south India. India’s National Integration Council met in September 2013 after social media posts had been blamed for causing riots in Uttar Pradesh, and many states are setting up social media monitoring departments to raise “red flags”, much like the Social Peace Force itself.

A coherent and honest study of the abuse of social media platforms by fringe groups to incite violence should take place. Given the fast paced nature of the medium, the question for a country as prone to communal riots as India is: how can one control them? Is counter-speech to drown out hate speech a strategy to be employed? Is clamping down on free speech effectively going to reduce religious intolerance? Does bypassing legal routes and going straight to the “source” help? A national dialogue on the matter might be more fruitful in the long run than the flowering of surveillance groups cutting across the board — be they citizen or state-led.

This article was published on June 30, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org