Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor who in 2013 became a whistleblower cautioning the world about the dangers of mass surveillance on the internet, has once again chosen UK’s Guardian to communicate his thoughts.
Six years ago, the daily was one of the media outlets that published Snowden series of leaks – documents that exposed not only the depth and breadth but also the ambition of US spy agencies and their allies in an apparent bid to impose a system of total surveillance onto the digital world.
Now, Snowden – who has since been living in exile in Russia, where he apparently got stranded in the early days of his “adventure” – has penned an opinion piece in defense of encryption.
Snowden gives an overview of how encrypted communication between not merely individuals but also computers and networks works, and presents a foundation for the safety and security of entire economies and critical systems within them.
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Yet, despite the networked systems presenting such a crucial – and consequently highly vulnerable component of the way modern societies function – some countries, like the UK and Australia, seem to be oblivious to the need to further protect them with strong encryption.
And while it’s those countries that seem to have made most advanced steps to undermine encryption, Snowden, perhaps understandably, focuses on the initiatives pushed forward by his own, the United States.
He argues that all these countries, instead of strengthening encryption, seem to be looking for ways to degrade it. According to him – US tech giants like Facebook, Google and Apple have in the last six years made big strides towards “encryption-by-default as a central part of their products” – but they are now threatened by “Donald Trump’s,” i.e., US Attorney General William Barr, who is said to be willing to roll this apparent progress all the way back.
The argument made here is the one heard many times before from many concerned quarters: once you decide to weaken encryption for some – like, for example, some choice government agencies by perhaps building in back-doors – the whole system becomes vulnerable to everyone else. And that includes not only other governments but also run-of-the-mill criminals.
“It is striking that when a company as potentially dangerous as Facebook appears to be at least publicly willing to implement technology that makes users safer by limiting its power, it is the US government that cries foul,” Snowden writes. “This is because the government would suddenly become less able to treat Facebook as a convenient trove of private lives,” he speculates.