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Should governments have backdoor access to our private messages on social media?

by Josef Kafka

Government security and policing concerns are increasingly leading to requests for backdoor access to social media sites, like Facebook. Increasing concerns that legislation will be enacted to force this type of access raise a number of issues for cybersecurity experts.

About governments’ requests to access Facebook

In October 2019, top government security officials from the UK, US, and Australia wrote to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, urging him to create a backdoor entry into the end-to-end encrypted messaging apps service offered by the brand. This request was rejected in a short space of time and follows on from refusals by major players Apple and Google to enable such backdoor entry.

Indeed, the high profile 2016 San Bernardino terrorist gun attack caused the FBI to take Apple to court over its refusal to enable access to the iPhone 5C used by the terrorist, Syed Farook. This case flagged up the enduring rows between law enforcement agencies and technology giants regarding back door entry, and also caused ongoing public debate surrounding the issue. The Apple court case was only dropped because the FBI managed to source an outside agency with the ability to access the records on that particular model of iPhone. It’s likely the source managed to bypass some of Apple’s security measures on the iPhone 5C, however, the US government refuses to provide details of just how they got access to Farook’s phone records.

Should law enforcement agencies and government officials be able to access private messages and phone data?

In addition to commonly expressed concerns about officials gaining access to private messages and data, there are also lots of security issues surrounding back door entry. For example, from the perspective of the cybersecurity industry creating back door entry into any kind of encrypted system creates weaknesses which can be exploited by others.

The head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart, commented: “Cybersecurity experts have repeatedly proven that when you weaken any part of an encrypted system, you weaken it for everyone, everywhere.” The Facebook response to the October open letter from the UK, US and Australian governments also said: “The ‘backdoor’ access you are demanding for law enforcement would be a gift to criminals, hackers and repressive regimes, creating a way for them to enter our systems and leaving every person on our platforms more vulnerable to real-life harm,” the Facebook executives maintained. It is simply impossible to create such a backdoor for one purpose and not expect others to try and open it. People’s private messages would be less secure and the real winners would be anyone seeking to take advantage of that weakened security. That is not something we are prepared to do.”

Many consumers and experts within the online world agree with the conclusions reached by the Facebook teams and other providers. It is vital for social media firms to protect and value consumer privacy because each and every individual has as much right to converse privately online as they do socially.

What lessons can we learn from Facebook’s refusal to allow backdoor access to its apps?

One of the takeaways from this application for access to Facebook’s new encryption has to be that governments cannot crack it. After all, if the security services had the ability to bypass encryption of this nature, they wouldn’t need to ask for back door entry.

What does end-to-end encryption mean?

With end-to-end encryption, it’s possible to securely transmit information so only the recipient has the ability to read it. The data is encrypted within the sender device and it only gets decrypted when it hits the sender device.

Of course, what this does mean is that Facebook no longer has the ability to access information transmitted via its apps. One of the reasons Facebook added the encryption was down to the Edward Snowden case which revealed that intelligence agencies in the US and the UK were massively involved in intercepting and reading communications.

The introduction of end-to-end encryption has prevented this type of espionage activity.

Why do the intelligence services and law enforcement agencies want to access our private messages?

In 2019 alone, Facebook reported 12 million potential cases of child abuse or exploitation to the US authorities and the introduction of end-to-end encryption means this will no longer be possible. Intelligence services also point to the fact that back door entry to messaging apps will help prevent terrorism and other serious crimes.

Mark Zuckerberg recognises the issues for child abuse which are posed by the encryption, however, he commented: “There is more stuff on basically being able to identify patterns of activity, especially around sharing child pornography, and things like this that are just terrible, that I think you can probably find through patterns of activity and that we are going to ramp up investment of.”

The fact that Facebook has managed to source so much data surrounding potential child abuse means the brand may well have the ability to track suspicious activity patterns to identify cases in the future. He pointed out that Facebook apps are not the preferred messaging solution for abusers, it’s just that the brand is adept at finding it very early on.

If you’re at all worried about online privacy issues or have other security concerns, the team at 1stCallDetectives is on hand to help solve any problems. Get in touch to find out more.


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