End-to-end encryption

Authored by tim on Oct 15 2020, 5:42 PM.
Dear Minister,
I was disappointed to discover that you signed the recent
international statement on end-to-end encryption and public
safety [1], which indulges in the disgusting practice of using the
victims of child abuse as a political prop to attempt to justify
ever more ubiquitous surveillance.
Perhaps you are unaware of the important role end-to-end
encryption plays in protecting the safety of children. This year,
as I'm sure you're aware, there has been, for very good reasons, a
surge in the use of video calling and video conferencing. I
wonder how many toddlers have been naked in the backgrounds of
family video calls, how many children have undergone intimate
medical examinations via video calls, and how many teenagers have
foolishly exposed their naked bodies to digital cameras, thinking
that only their boyfriend or girlfriend would see them.
If you really want to protect these children from the eyes of
paedophiles, then you need to unequivocally support end-to-end
To illustrate their vulnerability, look at The Citizen Lab's
report on just one vulnerability in one popular video-conferencing
system — Zoom's waiting room vulnerability [2], which allowed an
attacker to access the video stream of a room by simply attempting
to join the room, even if they were never admitted to the room.
This would never have been possible if the video stream was
end-to-end encrypted.
That was merely one of a series of problems with Zoom's privacy.
And Zoom is not unique in having security problems. A site called
';--have i been pwned? [3] tracks leaks of personal information by
online systems. They already list over ten billion personal
accounts whose information has been leaked; that's an average
of more than one account per living person on this planet.
The most recent leaks they list include 400,000 accounts belonging
to Chowbus, an Asian food delivery service, nearly 3,000,000
accounts belonging to WiziShop, a French e-commerce platform, and
the personal information of tens of millions of people listed in
the database of Experian South Africa, a credit bureau. All three
of those leaks occurred between July and October this year.
If communications service providers have any means of accessing
people's conversations, then very often that means of access will
be leaked to people with sinister motives.
It's no use trying to be optimistic, as the international
statement does, about the prospect of "reasonable proposals" that
will allow access to benign governments, while protecting the
human rights of those living under authoritarian governments. No
encryption system can possibly distinguish legitimate requests,
made by liberal governments, from requests made by authoritarian
governments for the purpose of persecuting their peaceful
opponents; cryptography simply doesn't work like that.
Businesses don't work like that, either. There are numerous
examples of Western businesses acquiescing to the Chinese
government's demands for censorship, production of information
about their customers, or recognition of China's territorial
claims, but the one that comes most strikingly to mind in the
present context is that of Skype's well-documented collaboration
with the Chinese Communist Party [4], which affected not only
Skype's customers in China, but also anyone using Skype to
communicate with someone else who was using TOM-Skype, the version
approved by the Party. This was the case when Skype was owned by
eBay, and continued to be true for years after Microsoft's
acquisition of Skype [5]. Skype's defence of this practice was
telling: they had to obey Chinese law [6].
If communications providers have any means of accessing people's
conversations, then very often they will willingly provide that
access not only to benign governments, but also to authoritarian
If you really care about journalists and human rights defenders in
repressive states, then you need to unequivocally support
end-to-end encryption.
I note that the international statement envisages that the
communications service providers themselves will have access to
their customers' conversations, as I have been assuming above.
But I am also aware of past proposals (of varying degrees of
vagueness) that involve only governments having the keys to
decrypt the conversations, rather than the communications service
providers themselves.
But government-controlled sets of keys will not prevent any of the
problems I've discussed above. Governments, too, are prone to
leaking sensitive data. For example, the US Government leaked
(probably to the Chinese Communist Party) the fingerprints of
millions of its own employees with security clearances [7].
And if you do manage to persuade (or force) communications service
providers to use only encryption systems that grant special
access to certain governments, then it would be very, very easy
for the Chinese government to pass laws requiring those companies
to grant similar access to the Chinese Communist Party, too. And
very easy for those companies to comply with those laws, noting
that it's one of the requirements for operating in China. The
journalists and human rights defenders you hope to protect will
have nowhere to turn, except, perhaps, to software you may have
rendered illegal even in liberal democracies.
And it's worth examining the motives of your cosignatories, too.
In the past, I've spoken with someone who worked in Kolkata,
assisting women who wanted to leave the sex trade. She indicated
that the police in Kolkata made no attempt to enforce laws against
the ownership and sale of children as sex slaves. This casts very
serious doubt on the Indian government's commitment to preventing
the sexual abuse of children.
In contrast, Indian police were active in enforcing prohibitions
on public protests in the wake of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act,
2019, which specified a path to citizenship for people belonging
to certain religions, notably not including Islam [8].
It would be very surprising if the Indian government reflected
significantly different priorities in its use of communications
surveillance powers.
I hope, having read this, you will reconsider your support of the
international statement.
Tim Makarios
[1] International statement - End-to-end encryption and public
[2] Zoom's Waiting Room Vulnerability
[3] ';--have i been pwned?
[4] Breaching Trust: An analysis of surveillance and security
practices on China’s TOM-Skype platform
[5] China Chats: Tracking surveillance and censorship in TOM-Skype
and Sina UC
[6] Skype Defends VoIP IM Monitoring In China
[7] US government hack stole fingerprints of 5.6 million federal
[8] Home Ministry Holds Security Meet Amid Protests Against
Citizenship Act

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