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The encryption paradox 
July 12, 2019
A conversational newsletter from
Smooch by Zendesk 

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, according to Politico.          

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? 👐

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. 

In The Washington Post, Silicon Valley correspondent Elizabeth Dwoskin explores what this conundrum means 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:
 
« 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.

Germany is considering a law that will force chat apps to hand over encrypted conversations “on demand,” according to Der Spiegel (h/t Wired).

Stakes are even higher in countries with authoritarian regimes or fledgling 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 cyber-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 as we reported in April, 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, reports What’s On Weibo

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. As one official newspaper put it:
 
« “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. 

Quartz reports 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. 

What’s clear is that while governments may try to intervene, citizens and consumers will always lead the conversation.
 

Letter to the Editor 

As The Message’s readership has grown, I’ve had lots of smart folks reply to these emails with kind words and insights. I always appreciate it, and thought I’d start sharing some snippets (with permission, of course). 

Last edition I covered Google’s latest gambit to make RCS a true SMS successor and iMessage competitor. Ashish Vadujkar from Acquire wrote in to point out an irony I hadn’t considered:
 
« I spent too many years in telco constantly upgrading our core networks to feed the OTT beasts as users kept splashing on rich media content by spending less on their internet connections… Classic…
»

In other words, as OTT channels like WhatsApp, Messenger and iMessage surged in numbers and popularized the rich messaging features RCS is trying to catch up on, they did so on the backs of the very companies whose lunch they’re eating. 

I’ll let Ashish close us out in Spielbergian fashion:
 
« Being an ex-telco, tragic RCS feels like Tom Hanks from Saving Private Ryan when the ‘cavalry’ arrives as he is left with the last bullet….. For the sake of the telco industry I hope this standard gives them a fighting chance to win back lost ground (lost cause?....just kidding).
»

👋 Thanks for reading! You can send me your feedback, insights and protest-it notes by replying to this email. 


Dan Levy
Editorial Director
@danjl

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