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Amber Rudd is wrong - real people do want end-to-end encryption

(Image credit: Image Credit: Yuri Samoilov / Flickr)

Writing in the Daily Telegraph recently, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd stated that “real people” do not need such “high levels of security” as offered by end-to-end encryption (E2EE), going on to add that “real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.”  This statement couldn’t be further from the truth.

Encryption brings huge benefits

Encryption’s benefits are far-reaching and essential in a world where most of our business and personal communications happen digitally. To cite just a few examples, E2EE allows people to communicate safely with one another in nations with oppressive regimes, enables LGBTQ individuals to stay in touch in countries where homosexuality is illegal, provides a way for doctors to share confidential patient information and ensures journalists can protect their sources.

Our online lives also necessitate an enormous and ever-increasing amount of personal data sharing, further driving a need for E2EE. For example, our personal details, credit card and other banking information and medical records are frequently shared online, increasing risk, as unsecure communication can be captured by a whole host of malicious actors such as sniffers on public WiFi networks, malware apps and ISP-level tracking.

In addition, our personal data has become the centre of a new economy, with retailers tracking and storing information on our shopping habits in data repositories, while social media has fuelled us to share our photographs, plans, whereabouts, and feelings on a daily basis. This has driven advertisers to utilise detailed and very personal information to target consumers, with vast resources spent collecting such information, all without transparency, policy, or oversight.

Furthermore, the volume of digital threats is increasing; Google saw a 32 per cent (opens in new tab) increase in the number of website hacks in 2016. Such breaches have enormous ramifications for both businesses and consumers, with investors losing £42 billion (opens in new tab) from hacking attacks on UK businesses since 2013.

Growing demand from businesses 

The combination of these factors has powered demand for E2EE. As we’ve seen with the surge adblocker downloads, an increasing number of consumers are looking to escape the barrage of adverts and stop their personal communication passing through data mines, causing more and more people to turn to E2EE.

However, the most notable demand for strong encryption has stemmed from businesses, which until recently have lacked a user-friendly E2EE business communications tool.  Companies have therefore been forced to rely on tools which lack a rich user experience and functionalities that are vital for business communications. Alternatively, they have had to use  non-E2EE solutions such as Slack and Skype for Business that use transport layer security protocol that has been the subject of a number of high profile attacks (opens in new tab).

As these breaches demonstrate, not using an E2EE tool leaves businesses’ chats, files and calls at the risk of being exploited by hackers who can compromise the servers and get hold of these details, as well as open to access by service providers.

At Wire, we’ve seen three distinctive drivers for E2EE from businesses:

●      The need to protect customer data (healthcare companies, businesses in the legal and financial sectors, tax advisors and private banking)
●      The need to protect intellectual property amidst fears of growing industrial espionage, in particular with companies from the pharmaceutical, automotive and industrial sectors
●      The need to protect their internal communications (government institutions and M&A departments of large corporations, etc.), and communication with customers, the “real people”

These drivers have fuelled a change in the communications landscape, and prompted us to launch a dedicated E2EE business platform.

Severe ramifications for unsecure communications

The spate of high profile hacks during the past few years has shown the enormous damage a breach can do to a business’ customers, reputation and revenue; Oxford Economics found that companies’ share prices fall by an average of 1.8 per cent (opens in new tab) on a permanent basis following a severe breach where large amounts of sensitive information is lost. While this percentage may seem low, for FTSE 100 companies this would equate to an average of £120 million.

In addition, E2EE will be a vital tool for companies next year when the new General Data Protection Regulation (opens in new tab) (GDPR) comes into force in May 2018. This will require companies to enforce greater levels of protection on their customer data, and securing communications channels is a vital part of this process.

Breaching GDPR could lead to fines of up to 20 million euros or 4 per cent of the annual global turnover, whichever is greater, demonstrating the importance of adhering to the regulations.

Digital Minister Matt Hancock also recently announced (opens in new tab)that firms could face steep fines of up to £17 million, or 4 per cent of global turnover, should they fail to protect themselves from cyber-attacks. In spite of Rudd’s comments regarding encryption, should businesses opt to communicate through non-secure channels, they could be perceived as not protecting themselves from breaches, and thus potentially at risk from fines.

As these use cases demonstrate, contrary to Rudd’s statement, real people and businesses not only want the high level of security offered by E2EE, they need it, and are demanding it, and these demands will only increase as technology advances. For example, we’re likely to soon witness a need for E2EE for the Internet of Things, and for the management of self-driving cars.

Backdoors leave us open to risk

Fortunately some governmental institutions recognise the need to embrace E2EE. In June the EU Parliamentary Commission on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs highlighted the need for safe and secure communication, and recommended a ban on any attempt to weaken E2EE by any member state.

This proposal would forbid the use of so-called “backdoors” that allow the reading of encrypted messages, and places the EU in conflict with the UK government, with Rudd previously expressing the belief that technology companies should provide authorities with access to encrypted messages.

However, despite insistence by Rudd that such a backdoor would enable the UK to keep its citizens safe from some threats, it exposes them to a wealth of others. Building in a backdoor for the authorities would invalidate the encryption, and leave it wide open to exploitation from anyone.

Against a backdrop of growing digital threats, E2EE has become more important than ever, and its benefits should not be ignored. Instead of looking to remove encryption, governments, businesses and “real people” should look to utilise it and unlock the vast amount of benefits it can bring. E2EE is an essential building block of the ecosystem that protects consumers and businesses from privacy invasion and threats, and it is time it was recognised as such.

Alan Duric, Co-Founder, CEO, Wire (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Yuri Samoilov / Flickr

Alan Duric is a Co-Founder of Wire and serves as its CEO. He was an early pioneer of VoIP, and has founded multiple other initiatives such as Telio Holding ASA, now NextGenTel Holding ASA.