Given the global nature of the internet, the decisions some countries make affect us all. Foreign powers have already stolen personal data tied to half of all Americans. In the last six months, we’ve seen devastating attacks on the servers of major companies and governments that continue to use unsecure email. The consequences of these attacks can play out over the course of a lifetime.
For most of human history, we have felt free to confide in one another about our families, our work, our hopes, and our fears. That sense of freedom comes from the knowledge that once our words left our lips, they weren’t recorded.
But if nothing online is private, and every conversation today is online, then no conversation is private. That would leave us with two choices: Either we communicate face-to-face, or we surrender any expectation that we’re alone.
That’s not a realistic way to live. We carry and check our phones from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. In an emergency, your phone is probably one of the first things you’d grab.
Just because we have vastly improved the technology that lets us communicate with people far away doesn’t mean our privacy should go away. Machines today might make it possible for someone else to see and hear what we’re doing and what we’ve said, but that doesn’t mean they should.
That’s what makes end-to-end encryption so valuable. As complex and advanced as it is, the idea behind it is thousands of years old. Early cryptography made it possible for people to communicate securely, but only if they had already exchanged a secret “key” ahead of time.
But that’s not practical in today’s world. Exchanging secret “keys” with everyone you know ahead of time and tracking those keys yourself would be tedious at best. Modern technology has made this seamless. The end-to-end encryption WhatsApp uses automatically exchanges the “key” directly on the sender’s and recipient’s physical devices and nowhere else. Every single message has its own separate lock and key.
It’s no surprise, then, that many technology companies have added end-to-end encryption, and that since the pandemic started, several more have scrambled to upgrade their systems to protect the growing volume of critical communication happening digitally.
Knowing that you can communicate confidentially beyond the sound of your voice matters. It makes it possible for doctors to see patients remotely, helps militaries protect operational secrets, supports people building businesses, and protects journalists bringing important information to light. It also makes it possible for us to have the most private conversations with the people we care about, confident that we can speak our mind to the people closest to us without fear that someone is listening in.
End-to-end encryption locks tech companies out of particularly sensitive information, and for good reason. In 2019, the Justice Department filed charges in a case where people connected to Saudi Arabia were allegedly spying on dissidents using internal access tools. With end-to-end encryption, even employees do not have the ability to access private messages, for any purpose. This has caused frustration with governments who want tech companies to provide private messages under legal process.
Some governments are honestly trying to fight crime and looking to the dramatic increase in technology in our lives as a potential source of new evidence. Their criticism is that end-to-end encryption makes it harder for law enforcement to find evidence of a crime, and harder for companies to monitor people’s calls and messages to refer to law enforcement. But this is looking at a problem in isolation. It was never possible or easy to access most people’s private conversations when they were happening physically instead of digitally. We should not assume that just because technology makes something easier to do, we should do it.