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Another View

New Facebook privacy obstacle: William Barr

Facebook wants to pivot to privacy, but there’s a new obstacle in its path: Attorney General William Barr.

Barr and other law enforcement officials in the U.S., Britain and Australia are asking the technology company to scrap its much-touted plan to make all of its messaging services end-to-end encrypted by default, BuzzFeed reported last week. The move is likely the first salvo in a broader fight against programs that put users’ communications out of government’s reach – a trend that Barr this summer called “unacceptable” and “exceptionally dangerous.”

But leaving consumers’ information unprotected is dangerous, too. The officials said in their letter that they support a “means for lawful access,” otherwise known as a “backdoor” for authorities to enter when they come knocking with a warrant. The problem is a door for U.S. authorities could be a door for everyone else. And everyone else wants in.

Services such as WhatsApp operate with a universal code, which means the moment the U.S. is offered a security workaround, the leaders of countries far less free will start asking for similar treatment. Egypt, The New York Times recently reported, has been conducting sophisticated cyberattacks on its opposition politicians and civil society. Devices can be altered for individual markets, but that doesn’t mean building intentional vulnerabilities is wise. Last week, Microsoft revealed that the Iranian government had tried to breach email accounts belonging to a U.S. presidential campaign. Create a “golden key” for the good guys here, and hackers might find ways to unlock whatever they wish.

Barr’s concerns are legitimate. Criminals take advantage of these systems to conduct their business in the dark, and some of that business, such as child exploitation imagery, is repugnant. There is a tradeoff between security and safety. But the tradeoff need not be absolute. Even with encryption, there are ways to gather evidence, and there could be areas for compromise beyond the debate over a backdoor.

Some believe the way forward for criminal investigations is to permit court-compelled device unlocking for suspects in custody; others believe lawful hacking is the answer. But preventing end-to-end encryption entirely would be a mistake.

The Washington Post

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