Is Encryption Being Stigmatised?

In February 2016, Apple Inc. and the FBI were embroiled in a bitter tussle over cracking San Bernadino's gunman's iPhone. The Department of Justice compelled Apple to hand over the iOS source code to necessitate the FBI to decrypt information on Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone, one of the San Bernadino shooters.

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, was defiant at the U.S court's order, arguing that providing the FBI with a backdoor would seriously jeopardize the security of millions of Americans.

Apple Customer Letter

A Message To Our Customers | Apple

Top companies such as Google and Facebook were quick to throw their weight behind Apple as a sign of solidarity. On it's part, Microsoft was swift to distance itself from Founder, Bill Gates' comments and stance regarding the saga by filing an Amicus brief siding with rival Apple.

In the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations on NSA practices which he revealed in 2013, governments around the world have moved with haste to pass new legislation to increase surveillance. These laws are a serious and direct breach to fundamental rights to privacy of users of communication systems.

As a reaction, technology companies have transitioned towards default encryption settings to enhance privacy and security of user devices.

Several governments have time and again argued that encryption tools could easily be used by terrorists and criminal elements in the quest to evade being apprehended. According to a 2015 Freedom House Publication (Freedom on the Net),

“policy makers in the U.K and U.S have been at the forefront at calling for companies to provide intelligence with a “backdoor” to user data, circumventing encryption”.

Apple Customer Letter

Freedom on the Net 2015 | Freedom House

Similarly, China the only country in the world to have attained a higher level of digital sovereignty has not been left far behind. In November 2014, Chinese authorities proposed a counter-terrorism law that would require telecom firms to provide a “backdoor” to circumvent encryption.

Internet giant Facebook was engulfed in yet a similar scenario with the law enforcers in Brazil. The latter were demanding access to encrypted data on Facebook's messaging platform WhatsApp, an act that many felt contravened the Marco Civil Da Internet Act. Perhaps in what may be seen as an attempt to safeguard users, Facebook vehemently objected to this demands stating that the company was not in a position whatsoever to decrypt user messages on their servers back into plain text.

2015 saw a number of foreign journalists detained and deported by the Turkish state – their crime simply being “the use of encryption in their journalism work”. In one instance, the Turkish government even went astray and likened encryption to terrorism!

In the same year, India came up with a controversial encryption policy proposal that culminated into a public uproar. The state was forced to reject this proposal following the outcry from the civil society
and public at large. This proposal by India would have forced the populace to store plain text versions of their encrypted data for a period of up to 90 days, with the national security being allowed access to such data at any given time.

Other states such as Cuba and Ethiopia are perfect examples of where encryption continues to face a backlash from state actors.

Conclusion

From the scenarios depicted herein, it is quite evident that there are seemingly endless tensions between law enforcement and tech companies vis-a-vis the encryption debate.

While encryption is a vital element of digital security to users, states have opted on deliberate attempts to stigmatize encryption.
At the time of publishing this article, the media was already awash with reports that the FBI had managed to access content of the iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman without Apple's assistance.

Civil liberties watch dogs such as the UN High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR), feel this latest crypto development could adversely compromise privacy – a pivotal human right.

ICT analysts on their side have raised a red flag regarding calls to provide intelligence with a “backdoor”; they feel that it may eventually be used by hackers for malicious motives.

Undoubtedly, the Apple vs FBI saga is a meme that has triggered a global conversation whose discourse can only be adjudged as a sphinx.
Perhaps the question we should now all be asking - Is this the beginning of the end of digital privacy and security for users?

Cover Image, The Enigma Machine | J

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