While everyone’s been panicking about the coronavirus, the U.S. government has been quietly trying to remove end-to-end encryption. A bill to do so is currently making its way through Congress.
If passed, the EARN IT bill will greatly reduce the privacy of many Americans. End-to-end encryption means that your messages are safe — it’s a form of message-sharing where only those communicating can read the content of the messages. It means you’re not being monitored.
By passing this bill and putting a stop to end-to-end encryption, text messages will no longer be protected. To use an analogy described by Forbes, encryption is like a key. One device encrypts a message and scrambles the data, leaving it indecipherable to third parties, and the receiving device decrypts the data using a key.
But by getting rid of end-to-end encryption, there could be a third party listening in or a master key used to decrypt all messages — a key someone could steal. Having government “back doors” into private conversations increases the risk of hackers discovering and using these doors. Data and messaging are safer when the only person who can decrypt said data is the recipient.
The argument for ceasing end-to-end encryption is that it could be used to catch criminals, as it would be easier to discover people discussing illicit activities this way. The bill describes developing “recommended best practices … to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children.”
While this seems like a sound and moral idea on the surface, in reality, it opens the door to the prosecution of those committing lower-level crimes. The number of people caught for serious crimes like murder or distribution of child pornography would be a much lower percentage than the number of people caught for something like a drug or immigration-related offense. A bill proposed to catch big-time criminals would soon develop into the persecution of many small-time, first offenders, and then into a general, pervasive fear of the government itself. No one wants to be monitored like this.
This level of observation is unethical. People should have a right to privacy and a right to discussion without repercussions. It may start with the discovery of a few major criminals due to texting history, but it could very easily lead to people being afraid of speaking their minds. From the 1950s to ’70s, the CIA conducted similar operations, violating its charter for 25 years, including instances of illegal wiretapping and domestic surveillance, according to “The CIA’s Family Jewels,” which is a summary of the documents that were released on the CIA’s website in 2007 after more than 30 years of secrecy. The revelation of this level of surveillance was a big deal, and putting a stop to end-to-end encryption would be inviting these practices to resume, only legally this time.
This also isn’t the first instance of the U.S. government sneaking a bill through Congress while the American public is too distracted to call their representatives and prevent it. The Patriot Act, passed in 2001, allows search warrants to be passed without probable cause. National Security Letters (NSLs) can be issued without a judge’s approval to retrieve phone records, banking information and more. This personal information is saved forever. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in just a few years after passing the Patriot Act, 143,074 NSLs were conducted. Fifty-three of these cases led to criminal referrals, and none of them were related to terrorism, which the act was first imposed for.
This bill was pushed through in the wake of the panic following 9/11, similar to how the U.S. government is now trying to use the COVID-19 panic to push through its latest atrocity. The passage of time won’t be enough to rid ourselves of this bill, either, as the Patriot Act was restored in 2015 the day after it expired, rechristened as the USA Freedom Act.
Giving up this right to privacy for a payout that would be minimal isn’t worth it. The majority of people caught for illegal activities would be insignificant, as proven by the Patriot Act. The thought of being constantly surveilled like this sounds like the start to a dystopian novel.
The government should be working for the people, not against them. We must remain vigilant in the face of COVID-19 or another attack on our privacy will be passed right under our noses when we were all too busy trying to protect ourselves from a much more immediate threat.
Jillian Carey is a sophomore media arts and design major. Contact Jillian and email@example.com.