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But What About The Terrorists

Jan 03, 2015

Lately, I've been having more and more conversations with people about privacy, surveillance, encryption, censorship etc... generally after disclosing my core interests in technology, and that I want to make end to end encryption easier. Inevitably the usual "So you want to enable terrorists to communicate without the government watching" argument springs up. Here are a few of the arguments that I now use.

Encryption software already exists, and these people use it.

There are already many pieces of software that almost certainly work very well against surveillance (PGP, OTR, Axolotl etc...) and there are 2 groups of people that use it:

  • Criminals with something to hide (terrorists, paedos, drug cartels etc...)
  • Technologically savvy people conscious of privacy.

The largest group of people that are not using encryption software that can actually allow them to protect their data from governments are the average citizen. And this is because this software is really bloody hard to use. It requires either a lot of time and investment to get working, or you need to be very technically capable, and even then it is very easy to make mistakes.

So you have nothing to hide...?

Perhaps you don't have anything to hide from the current government, but what about when laws are introduced that you don't personally agree with, or when existing laws start having more severe consequences. Suddenly that facebook message you sent to your friend about how fast you were speeding the other day could land you with a fine, or when a cousin tells you about how they managed to sell off some marijuana to some guy, and you don't report it, you could be considered to have obstructed justice.

And it's not only the more "free" nations that we should be worrying about, there are plenty of nations where citizens are oppressed and controlled, who would hugely benefit from private communications.

Leaving mass surveillance in place and functional will allow for an easier transition into a police state or dictatorship. We are already beginning to see signs of overreaching governments in 1st world nations.

Mass surveillance is not Terrorism Prevention, it's Population Control!

Even when people use encryption techniques to protect themselves from governments, those governments can still completely intercept them. There are many techniques that they use to do this, installing malware etc... It is these techniques that really work when catching these kinds of criminals. The only difference is it requires a significant investment per target. But if you have reason to be targeted as an individual, they will get that information.

This level of targeting though, cannot scale to the entire population. Unlike mass surveillance, which is what's prevented with end to end encryption.

I don't want to prevent ALL surveillance, only mass surveillance.

Currently it costs governments almost nothing to perform mass surveillance. Enabling easy crypto for the every day user will change this, and will allow the general public to have privacy again.

There are many ways in which intelligence agencies can still intercept

criminal activity.

  • Install malware on individuals devices (almost certainly happens all the time already).
  • Issue modified hardware.
  • Socially intercept.
  • Traditional surveillance techniques (CCTV, following etc...)

Luckily, these techniques scale much less easily than mass surveillance.

Also, you should definitely go ahead and read Moxie Marlinspike's post "We Should All Have Something To Hide".


Sam Lanning

Sam Lanning

Studied Computer Science @ Oxford University. Interested in Communication, Security, Privacy, Anonymity, P2P, E2E, Mesh, Censorship Resistance etc...

Oxford - UK