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End-to-end encryption may be the bane of cops, but they can’t close that Pandora’s Box

interview Police can complain all they like about strong end-to-end encryption making their jobs harder, but it doesn’t matter because the technology is here and won’t go away. 

That’s what Robin Wilton, director of internet trust at the Internet Society, told us when we spoke recently about the state of E2EE in light of Europol becoming the latest international law enforcement group to urge regulators and tech giants to ditch the practice. It’s a lively chat that you can see in full below.

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Strong end-to-end encryption (E2EE) is a practice of encrypting messages and other info between two endpoints so that even the provider of that encryption, and the carriers transferring the data, can’t snoop on and read the contents. Law enforcement argues this leaves them unable to shut down serious crime – from human trafficking and drug smuggling, to child sexual abuse material (CSAM) production – because investigators can’t intercept and pore over people’s communications.

Wilton disagrees.

“If you look back to about 2015 and look at the proliferation of available end-to-end encrypted messaging services and apps since then … somehow the number of arrests for illegal images [should] have dropped off the cliff,” Wilton said. “But it hasn’t. It has pretty much remained constant.”

In other words, the cops haven’t shown that encryption has impeded crime solving. If law enforcement wants it banned, they’re going to have to prove their case – something Wilton said hasn’t happened yet, and Europol’s letter didn’t help.

The claims made by Europol were “a lot of statements and assertions, but pretty thin on evidence,” Wilton said.

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But what about newly enacted laws in the UK, where the Online Safety Act potentially impedes E2EE encryption in favor of police access: Is that an indicator that the encryption fight is a losing one? Quite the opposite, from Wilton’s perspective: It’s a futile fight for law enforcement. 

“Think of the number of connected things that we’re surrounded by now,” Wilton told us, adding that widespread use of E2EE is a necessity in the modern world.

“[To] then say … we’re gonna legislate for a world in which it’s present there, but it’s absent from messaging, I think that’s just wishful thinking,” Wilton added. ®