Mass surveillance and Snoopers' Charter

A surveillance nightmare: secret back doors and Government ghosts

Posted by Hannah Couchman on 16 Jan 2019

The Government wants to break the encryption that protects our private messages – threatening our fundamental rights to privacy and free expression, in a way that could alter how safe we feel communicating privately with one another.

What is encryption?

Encryption is a process which scrambles our communications so they can be sent without anyone else being able to read them.

Companies such as WhatsApp and Signal provide messaging services with “end-to-end encryption”. This means that even the messaging companies themselves cannot see the content, and they have no way of decrypting it. Only the sender and the recipients can read the message.

For a long time, the Government has used a dangerous narrative to put your ability to encrypt your private emails, messages and calls at risk. The Government talks about encryption as creating a safe space for criminals and terrorists – but this is a deeply misleading picture.

Encryption underpins everything we do online – including internet banking, online shopping and storing medical records. Scaremongering around encryption does nothing to keep us safer and risks making all of us vulnerable to an attack on our privacy.

Undermining encryption – “back doors” and “ghosts”

In the past, the Government has called for a “back door” into encryption. This would require an intentional flaw to be introduced into the encryption, and we wouldn’t be able choose who does and does not have access to it.

And now the Government has blogged about another way they are seeking to undermine our end-to-end encryption – through the use of a “ghost”. The “ghost” is a third party, added into your chat or call, to monitor what is being said – so the government becomes a secret member of your conversation.

While GCHQ shamelessly try to argue that “everything [is] still being end-to-end encrypted”, this clearly undermines proper encryption which is predicated on the content of our communications only being seen by the intended recipients.

Messaging apps like WhatsApp even have a special feature to allow you to verify your conversation is secure and encrypted. For the Government’s “ghost” to work, we would have to be shown a fake code – our app would have to lie to us and cover up the truth.

Why does it matter?

Liberty has long fought against State powers to weaken encryption and undertake suspicionless surveillance.

Allowing the Government to snoop on our conversations changes what we might feel we can talk about. We will not be able to trust our messaging apps when we’re told our messages are secure. It also threatens our security, creating “back doors” by another name which non-stage actors could discover and take advantage of.

The United Nations has said that the use of encryption should be encouraged to protect freedom of expression. It enables us to share ideas, promote causes that are important to us and take part in activism. We also have the right to access a free press, which relies on journalists being able to keep their sources protected.

Countries that place controls on encryption are often authoritarian regimes with very poor human rights records. The UK should not join them.

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