Thoughts on the encryption debate

In the physical world we accept, even demand, all manner of measures which are designed to detect signs of criminal behaviour or risks to the public. We do this because, in respect of crime, or at any rate serious crime, we would like to prevent the offences from happening in the first place. Alternatively, after the event, being on notice that a crime has been committed means we may have the possibility of mitigating the worst effects and perhaps also make it easier, cheaper and quicker to apprehend those responsible, among other things with a view to encouraging them not to repeat their transgressions.

In relation to public safety we accept, again even demand, multiple limitations and rules which govern or prescribe individual behaviour. Think about the pandemic. Think about the hoops people jump through to attend or leave a football match or a large concert, or what we accept or acquiesce in following a major accident or incident of some kind.

When boarding an aeroplane or entering a public building our bodies and clothing might be searched, and that’s in addition to being electronically scanned. We may have to empty out the contents of our pockets, handbags or suitcases in front of complete strangers because a machine picked up on something that looked decidedly dodgy or was merely ambiguous. Dogs sniff our luggage at airports and railway stations. If a tail wags we may have to open up and show what’s inside, perhaps again in front of complete strangers (not that that makes it much better or worse either way).

In like manner the Post Office and parcel delivery companies deploy a variety of detectors which scrutinise items as they pass through their systems. They can open letters or packages if a detector twitches, buzzes or a light flashes thereby giving the carrier reason to believe someone is trying to use their network to transport contraband or other items contrary to the company’s own terms and conditions of service. The company’s Ts and Cs will generally stipulate that their facilities may not be used for anything illegal.

Of course some curmudgeons, barrack-room lawyers or paranoid people (think anti-vaxxers) don’t like any of this kind of thing but the overwhelming majority of us go along with it because we understand and accept the underlying social purpose. I guess we also believe or trust that nothing else is going on here. Bill Gates is not inserting a microchip into all of our bodies via a vaccine. Nobody in Government or the airport authorities is recording what kind of underwear we prefer, if any.

When we engage in the encryption debate what we are testing is whether or to what extent we are willing to apply the same logic to the whole new world that has been opened up by digital technologies generally, more specifically the internet. This is important because this digital world is now so completely interwoven with, integral to and is inseparable from the physical world.

Is there any reason, in principle, to exempt online activity from the kind of rules or expectations which are routinely observed in the offline world when it comes to the prevention or detection of crimes or the safety of the public? I don’t think so.

How do we make the rules work in an online world in a way which reassures all reasonably-minded people there are no hidden agendas linked to how they are applied? That is a practical question, admittedly of great importance. But I trust we are way past the point of saying we can leave it to Big Tech or Small Tech alone to resolve, on a voluntary basis. They lost their angels’ wings some time ago.