Knowing how to kick a law when it’s down, Facebook unveiled a new encryption component to its website, which allows users to send and receive emails as well as Facebook notifications that organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA) are unable to view. In the wake of the temporary halting of the NSA spying program, at least in theory, the company announced on Monday, June 1st that users can opt in to add an OpenPGP key to their Facebook profiles. Encryption works by scrambling a message in a coded form by others using a known (public) key code. The reader also must have a private key, not shared with anyone, that is required to descramble the message. Other companies such as Yahoo and Gmail are also planning on following suit, announcing that they will also soon use the OpenPGP encryption system. This follows revelations, first leaked by former government contractor, Edward Snowden in 2013, and a disclosure last year that the NSA forbid Facebook from telling its users that it was being spied on as well as revealing that the NSA has even launched malware that impersonated the Facebook site. Facebook’s announcement demonstrates the company’s continued battle against the government regarding user privacy. In October, the company created a site for the Tor “darknet” platform that allows users to browse Facebook with enhanced anonymity.
Facebook’s pushback against government spying is not unique, as the battle between technology leaders and the companies’ users has been intense since Snowden’s 2013 disclosures. Snowden revealed that NSA and other security agencies have been trying to bully Facebook and other technology providers to give them “back door” in order to view user’s encrypted information. It would appear that Facebook is now using the current debate over the NSA-spying program to wrest some of that authority back. The company is not alone, as last month Apple announced that the company will be implementing stronger encryption features on its upcoming iOS 9 operating system. In a controversial response to the announcement, Chicago’s chief of detectives, John Escalante recently told the Washington Post, “Apple will become the phone of choice for the pedophile. The average pedophile at this point is probably thinking, I’ve got to get an Apple phone.” Apple CEO Tim Cook argued that consumers need to be reassured that their information is kept safe and private even in the wake of government pressure, however, saying that the company has “never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services… And we never will.”
Facebook’s announcement comes two days after United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report calling encryption and online anonymity a “basic human right.”Report author, David Kaye, states that “Encryption and anonymity, and the security concepts behind them, provide the privacy and security necessary for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age.” The report continues, “Such security may be essential for the exercise of other rights, including economic rights, privacy, due process, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and the right to life and bodily integrity.” The report illustrates how encryption and information security has become a global issue, as Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron stated his desire to completely outlaw strong encryption in a recent speech. The head of the European police agency, Europol’s Rob Wainwright calls strong encryption “perhaps the biggest problem for the police and the security service authorities in dealing with the threats from terrorism.” Although not calling for an outright ban, President Obama has stated “When we have the ability to track [online communication] in a way that is legal, conforms with due process, rule of law and presents oversight, then that’s a capability we have to preserve.” However technology blogger and activist Cory Doctorow notes that “there’s no back door that only works for good guys.”
Business Insider – Rob Price
International Business Times – Mary-Ann Russon
PC World – Ian Paul