Balancing End-to-End Encryption and Public Safety

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This Occasional Paper examines perspectives on the benefits and the public safety risks of E2EE communications.

Over the last decade, there has been a significant debate around end-to-end encryption (E2EE) and its implications for public safety. At the forefront of the discourse is a false dichotomy between protecting privacy and ensuring national security. At the extreme ends of this deeply polarised debate are two key arguments. On the privacy side, it is believed that governments and law enforcement agencies desire unrestrained exceptional access to E2EE communications to spy on their citizens. On the security side, it is maintained that obtaining lawful exceptional access is the only way to protect citizens and uphold national security. The debate has reached a deadlock, with both sides perpetuating zero-sum views.

However, experts are calling for a more nuanced conversation about possible solutions to the criminal use of E2EE services. It is vital that a range of views are considered in order to identify the key issues and inform a more productive debate. Through a review of the existing literature and insights from 22 semi-structured interviews, this paper balances the perspectives from a range of relevant stakeholders on the main elements of the E2EE debate and presents some key takeaways in an effort to move away from a crude privacy-versus-security binary.

The paper presents the following key findings:

  • There are clear and significant cyber security and privacy benefits to E2EE. Efforts to weaken or restrict its access would be a net loss for all.
  • Criminal use of E2EE is a significant risk to public safety and solutions are vital. Yet, it should also be acknowledged that technology is an enabler of criminal and harmful activity and should not be treated as the root cause.
  • The possibility of developing technical tools which could assist law enforcement investigations should not be categorically ruled out, but future proposals must be measured against the principles of proportionality, legality and technical robustness.
  • Alternative options for law enforcement investigations such as metadata analysis and legal hacking should be considered, but they are not without their drawbacks. Legal hacking could be proportionate but its reliance on software vulnerabilities is largely at odds with strong cyber security. Metadata analysis is promising but more research is needed to determine the extent to which it can be used to aid law enforcement investigations.
  • Industry do have a responsibility to make their platforms safer and free from criminal abuse. This requires implementation of safety-by-design principles and the provision of resources for better digital literacy and education. Governments must have oversight over the technical tools developed.
  • A more nuanced debate must continue which actively moves away from zero-sum views of absolute privacy versus absolute security, and focuses more on how the risks to public safety can be reduced in proportion with the need to protect citizens’ rights and freedoms.

WRITTEN BY

Chamin Herath

Research Analyst

Cyber

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Sneha Dawda

Research Fellow

Cyber

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