Making sense of private messaging politics

2 min read

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Senior members of the Trump administration met last month to discuss whether to pursue legislation outlawing end-to-end encryption on American-made messaging apps. This is the latest chapter of the endless debate on whether governments should have access to the private communications of citizens.

While the outcome of the meeting remains unclear, it brings to light a question governments, consumers and businesses all need to grapple with:

What do we lose when private messaging is truly private?

Fair trade-offs?

With end-to-end encryption, messages are only visible to the parties sending and receiving them, meaning not even the companies hosting the conversation (like, say, Facebook) can see read its content. On the one hand, end-to-end encryption means private messaging conversations are shielded from government surveillance, Cambridge Analytica-style data harvesting and the sort of targeted advertising that creeps people out.

On the other hand, encrypted messaging makes it far more difficult for law enforcement, journalists and the chat platforms themselves to combat hate speech, harassment, illegal activity and the potentially deadly spread of viral misinformation.

So what does this conundrum mean for Facebook, as it recenters its business around private messaging while simultaneously promising to clean up its platform? For Mark Zuckerberg, the choice is clear. As he told The Washington Post:

“When faced with a challenge around a trade-off between encryption and safety, I think people would want us to err a little bit more on the side of encryption.”

Ghost in the machine

The United States isn’t the only country navigating the encryption paradox. Senior intelligence officials in the U.K. have called upon messaging platforms to introduce a “Ghost Protocol” that would enable law enforcement to eavesdrop on encrypted chats. According to Der Spiegel, Germany is considering a law that will force chat apps to hand over encrypted conversations “on demand”.

Stakes are even higher in countries with authoritarian regimes or fledgeling democracies. During the recent protests in Hong Kong, organizers seeking to avoid government surveillance turned to Telegram. The encrypted messaging app, which has been banned in Iran and Russia, soon became one of the most downloaded apps in Hong Kong. Then its servers were hit by a DDoS attack that its founder said came “mostly from China.”

In the wake of Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings, the government blocked residents from accessing the country’s most popular social media and messaging apps, including Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp and Viber. Officials claimed the platforms were blocked to prevent the spread of viral misinformation from inciting further violence, but critics wondered if this was just a pretext for curbing civil liberties.

No group for you

In China, where non-end-to-end encrypted WeChat dominates the messaging landscape, central authorities have been cracking down on “illegal and obscene” content on the internet, as What’s on Weibo reported. Last week Tencent, which owns WeChat, banned a Microsoft chatbot from the platform for violating a regulation, though it declined to say which one.

Chinese state media has warned WeChat group admins they could even be arrested for what gets posted in their public groups

“Did you all think being a group host is free and easy? Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

Keep me posted

In addition to Telegram, Hong Kong protesters have been turning to another messaging medium to freely express themselves. It was reported that hundreds of thousands of multicolored post-it notes have sprouted around the city, with messages of support and resistance.

They may not be that modern — maybe postmodern? — but if you think about it, post-it notes share some of the hallmarks of modern messaging. They’re asynchronous. They’re personal. They sure are sticky.

On a more serious note (sorry, I can’t stop), it remains to be seen whether end-to-end encryption becomes table stakes, or something people are ultimately willing to sacrifice for safety and convenience.

While governments may try to intervene, and I personally think privacy is worth the tradeoffs, citizens and consumers will always lead the conversation.

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