I originally wrote this as an email in response to a proposed EU resolution to ban end-to-end encryption on apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and others. The salient points still remain true. I am a dilettante when it comes to the finer points of security and cryptography, however I am always trying to learn more on the topic, challenge my beliefs, and influence policy decisions. If you want to talk to me more about this sort of thing feel free to get in touch.

I write to condemn in the strongest possible terms the upcoming proposed EU resolution to ban end-to-end encryption on apps like WhatsApp, Signal, and others. Discussion of the proposal is available here.

My objection to the proposal is on two grounds: the first being pragmatic, based on my own IT expertise, and that of friends and colleagues; the second is moral/political.

From the pragmatic perspective, while it is cryptographically possible to have multi-key constructs, with a β€œmaster key” in escrow, the creation of a backdoor in the personal and business communications of law abiding citizens at scale creates multiple points of failure that can, and will, be exploited by adversaries both foreign and domestic. The custody of so-called β€œmaster keys” which would give intelligence agencies access to messages would be presented to ministers as being subject to the utmost security. I can assure you that eventually these keys will be compromised, no matter how strongly intelligence advisers suggest the contrary. Exploitation of individuals working at these agencies, numerous undocumented zero-days in our backbone software and hardware infrastructure, the likelihood of purposefully inserted hardware and software backdoors from third party adversaries, and many other weaknesses exist, which will lead to the inevitable disclosure of these master keys, and the opening up of private messages - either exploited by unknown third party adversaries (either criminal or state-level), or a broad public leak.

One need only look at the case The Shadow Brokers leak of 2016, where key NSA assets were leaked to the public by unknown actors. These tools will have been subject to some of the utmost security levels available at the world-class NSA. However, they were still leaked, and the zero-days were quickly leveraged in real-world attacks by state and criminal actors.

EU security agencies, much like the NSA, will never be immune to leaks like this. And leaking of backdoors keys to private communications of EU businesses and citizens would prove devastating to the economic interests, and personal lives of innocent people.

From another pragmatic perspective, I question the effectiveness of such collection techniques in policing. Cryptography is an open field of applied mathematics, with infeasible-to-crack algorithms (and their implementations) being freely available online and through countless other mediums. The following link has some simple code, that can be printed on a tshirt, that produces and encryption algorithm that can only be broken by as yet theoretical quantum computers (link). The point being, that even mildly sophisticated terrorist organisations, whom this proposal is targeting, will be able to easily bypass these backdoor measures with their own encryption software. Unsophisticated organisations will be such that conventional policing techniques will be more effective at stopping them (say by identifying when large quantities of hazardous materials are being purchased).

From the moral/political perspective, I refer to the following:

  • UN Declaration of Human Rights: Article 12
  • and the more limited Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights

Additionally, we cannot guarantee that the organisations holding these keys will always represent the core European ideals - our history tells us how easily political change can happen of this nature. Backdoor encryption will be a key tool in reinforcing the power of a bad internal actor, and make ousting them significantly more difficult.

From a personal perspective, as someone in the 18-25 age bracket, my digital communications are equal in value and form to my physical ones. I am exceedingly effective in leveraging the digital tools available to me, such that there is little difference between conversations in a private living room, versus in a private E2E encrypted chat. Just as I would take objection to the presence of an intelligence officer recording my conversations in a living room, so to do I take objection to the same occurring in a digital conversation. My having no intention to break the law, and any assurances that only terrorist related information will be relayed is irrelevant.

In conclusion, I believe that the law enforcement gains from compelling encryption backdoors are negligible, and the economical, social, and political risks are significant. I implore you as my representative to ensure this proposed resolution is stopped in its tracks, and any foundations to create more like it are deconstructed.

Kind regards,

Perry Gibson,
Scotland, EU