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Privacy is for paedophiles, UK government seems to be saying while spending £500k demonising online chat encryption

Opinion The British government’s PR campaign to destroy popular support for end-to-end encryption on messaging platforms has kicked off, under the handle “No Place To Hide”, and it’s as broad as any previous attack on the safety-guaranteeing technology.

Reported by us well in advance last year, the £500k campaign aims to destroy public support for end-to-end encryption (E2EE) as part of a wider strategy.

That intends to make it easy for police workers and other public-sector snoopers to read the public’s online conversations without having to get prior permission or defeat privacy protections.

Judging by videos earnestly distributed by organisations supporting it, the No Place To Hide campaign (being run by ad agency M&C Saatchi) is much wider than merely targeting Facebook Messenger as was previously thought.

Here the video’s contents reflect the police view of E2EE as a digital smokescreen that prevents them from trawling through conversations at random and seizing on anything they don’t like the look of. The message is clear: privacy is for paedophiles.

Inevitably, smart people have fought back – with one buying up an unclaimed domain name similar to the official No Place To Hide site and pointing those at informative material explaining the benefits of E2EE. Thus goes to ex-Facebook chap Alec Muffett’s blog post titled “There are more and better ways to help kids, without destroying the future of internet privacy”. We note that other similar domains appear to be unowned at the time of writing.

Otherwise, the campaign is off to a slow and unnoticeable start. This may be deliberate, so its opponents tire themselves out before it ramps up, but as an exercise in spending £500k in public money for minimal effect it’s doing spiffingly so far.

E2EE is a force for good

Lest anyone reading this gets the idea that the UK government has a point about E2EE protecting paedophiles, the technology does far more than that and the government is deliberately omitting this information.

Your mobile banking app uses E2EE; online chats with HMRC are protected through E2EE; you’d no more have an unsecured web chat with the taxman’s helpdesk than read out your P60 in the middle of a shopping centre.

Your family WhatsApp group is protected through E2EE, too, which prevents nefarious people from trawling it for information they can use to target and harm you and your loved ones. Yet the British government wants such protections taken away, mainly because it means police then have to do less work.

Do all these online protections help paedophiles? As an unwanted by-product of all the good E2EE does, yes. As an imperfect analogy, road accidents kill thousands of people by accident every year. Yet nobody argues that roads should be closed to prevent those deaths.

Money spent publicly lobbying Facebook not to enable E2EE and demonising the tech itself is money better spent on public awareness campaigns about ways to report crimes, outreach to children, parental education on how to talk to (and supervise) children about using social media today – and who children should talk to if a strange adult suddenly tries to befriend them online.

Money spent with M&C Saatchi, famous for its long association with the Conservative Party as well as a long-running accounting scandal, certainly won’t hurt any police or civil service careers under today’s Conservative government – but that doesn’t sweep aside the fact this money has been wasted chasing a pointless target.

Demonising technology that has long been adopted as routine in the enterprise IT world is a road to nowhere, and an increasingly tech and security-savvy population simply aren’t going to buy into “think of the children” rhetoric for something that will make them less safe online. No matter how hard public-sector figures try to make this about child abusers. ®