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Thursday, 09 April 2020 08:53

Signal dev uses COVID-19 crisis to warn against encryption ban Featured

Signal dev uses COVID-19 crisis to warn against encryption ban Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A developer of the messaging app Signal, that offers end-to-end encryption, has used the situation created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to warn Americans of the dangers to their privacy if legislators manage to put in place a new law known as the EARN IT Act that could make the use of end-to-end encryption unlawful.

Joshua Lund, who has spoken out in the past about the downsides of the encryption law passed by Australia in 2018, said in a blog post that over the last few weeks, the use of Signal had increased exponentially, meaning that umpteen people were using the app to communicate with their families, check in on their friends and talk to health professionals about personal issues, secure in the knowledge that the app's encryption would keep the information secure.

"At a time when more people than ever are benefitting from these protections, the EARN IT Act proposed by the Senate Judiciary Committee threatens to put them at risk. COVID-19 has us sheltering in place, but we cannot quarantine our concerns," he said.

The bill seeks to use the immunity that digital platforms are afforded by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — which lets them escape liability for things their users say and do — as a bargaining chip to get rid of end-to-end encryption.

The EARN IT act would lay down conditions to make it compulsory for platforms to adhere to any practices prescribed by a federal commission to combat child sexual abuse material online. One of the practices could well be the avoidance of end-to-end encryption.

As American cryptography fellow Dr Riana Pfefferkorn, who works with the Stanford Centre for Internet and Society, has put it, the US is trying to ban encryption without actually banning it.

Said Lund: "Some large tech behemoths could hypothetically shoulder the enormous financial burden of handling hundreds of new lawsuits if they suddenly became responsible for the random things their users say, but it would not be possible for a small non-profit like Signal to continue to operate within the US.

"Tech companies and organisations may be forced to relocate, and new start-ups may choose to begin in other countries instead."

The new bill has been promoted as a means of stopping child sexual abuse material online. But there is already a law that deals with this, making it mandatory for platforms to inform authorities about the existence of such material once they are made aware of its existence. There is no requirement for them to look for it on their own.

"As billions of conversations transition online over the coming weeks and months, the widespread adoption of end-to-end encryption has never been more vital to national security and to the privacy of citizens in countries around the world," said Lund.

"Bad people will always be motivated to go the extra mile to do bad things. If easy-to-use software like Signal somehow became inaccessible, the security of millions of Americans (including elected officials and members of the armed forces) would be negatively affected.

"Meanwhile, criminals would just continue to use widely available (but less convenient) software to jump through hoops and keep having encrypted conversations."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.



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