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The government’s anti-encryption campaign shows it’s learned nothing from the war on drugs

Criminalisation has almost always backfired through history, pushing illicit materials further into the hands of criminals

The UK has waged a war on end-to-end encryption for years, with the government boomeranging between scaremongering tactics to manipulate public opinion on the divisive technology. Its latest attempt to convince the public that surrendering its basic human right to privacy is, actually, a good idea, however, fails to address the core issue it’s ignoring; that criminalisation almost never works.

Revelations published by Rolling Stone shows the government isn’t backing down on encryption, despite a litany of more pressing fires it needs to put out. The Home Office has commissioned M&C Saatchi, a high-end advertising agency, to run an anti-encryption campaign centred on the role of encryption in child exploitation, including an insidious “visual PR stunt” involving a child and an adult. This aims to mobilise public opinion against Meta's decision to add encryption to Messenger, for instance, among other uses of the technology.

The events of recent weeks have shown the contempt the government holds towards its citizens, and the lengths it will go to hide self-servitude. It now believes using child exploitation as the main argument against encryption should be enough to turn the tide.

It should be under no illusion, however, that banning the technology will do little to curb the online abuse of children, although according to the former head of the NCSC Ciaran Martin, the government may not actually know what it’s talking about

Banning encrypted messaging will remove the benefits and freedoms it affords the public, while ramping up the levels of already-hyperactive state-wide surveillance. The 1920s prohibition era serves as a historical example, as well as today’s so-called war on drugs; it’s very much a losing battle. 

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Has the lack of easy-access cannabis, like we can find in some states in the US, led to a drop in use? Well, cannabis is still the most misused illicit drug in the UK, ONS figures show, with usage rising since 2013. Cocaine use, too, was up 37% against 2013, and more people also misused ketamine now than a decade ago. The Children’s Society, meanwhile, says 90% of police forces in England have observed county lines activity, with violence escalating.

It suggests what we know to be true; that outlawing things of value will only push them into the hands of outlaws. In the case of encryption, only those intent on harm will gain access to encrypted messaging services through technologies like Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), deep underground with little chance of government tracking.

Take Messenger, WhatsApp, and Signal away from Joe Public and what are you left with? The vast majority of the population will be exposed to the government of the day, whether it’s Boris Johnson, or an untimely successor. Criminals, meanwhile, will have already burrowed themselves deeper into the dark web, using PGP-signed messages over which the government has no oversight. Nobody can ban cryptography.

It’s here from which whiffs of incompetence emanate. Revoking end-to-end encryption will allow dark web communities to flourish, making life even more difficult for law enforcement. We’ve seen how dark web marketplaces have thrived despite attempts to stop the illegal trade of guns, drugs, and other illicit goods. After all, it takes months to infiltrate a marketplace and shut it down, and minutes for an alternative to begin accepting patrons.

This campaign is yet another thinly-veiled attempt to achieve the government’s ambition of scaling up the apparatus of the surveillance state, first through the Investigatory Powers Act, recently in its Online Safety Bill, alongside years of public gesticulations

To complicate matters, though, the government’s argument is somewhat valid, and one that even I, an avid proponent of end-to-end encryption, often struggle to internally justify. When you consider the lives lost through terrorist plots organised over encrypted messaging platforms, or the countless lives ruined through exploitation, it’s a difficult stance to hold.

When you see through the flagrant technical illiteracy and untruths running through this prospective campaign, however, you have to call into question the motives. This is especially true when you factor in attempts to undermine our rights and access to privacy, alongside the lengths to which government ministers go to hide their own activities from the public by using, you guessed it, WhatsApp. 

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