Press release: What’s The Problem with Encryption?

Journalists sitting and writing in notepads

47% in an online poll for Gresham College said Facebook should encrypt all of our chats; 84% said Government should not have access to our online chats

Do we really have nothing to fear about back doors in end-to-end encryption?

Embargo: 14 Feb 2023 7pm

We would like to invite you to a lecture by Professor Victoria Baines on What’s The Problem with Encryption?, on 14 Feb 2023. This is the fourth lecture in the series Humanising Cyberspace. Baines, Gresham’s IT Professor, is a leading authority in the field of online trust, safety, and cybersecurity.

In this lecture, she will explore important ongoing debates surrounding encryption between governments and tech companies, as well as look to the future of privacy and surveillance. These debates are intensifying as technologies continue to develop with the data collected on us becoming more and more intrusive. 

She will discuss how End-to-End (E2E) encryption provides great security but also presents a practical challenge. Neither governments nor the platforms on which it operates can access unscrambled communications and message content. Some governments have demanded ‘back doors’ for criminal investigations, while others have exploited workarounds to access the encrypted messages of political dissidents.

She will describe how “One proposed solution has been to give government authorities keys to decrypt encrypted communications in exceptional circumstances, for example, where there is legitimate suspicion that a serious crime is being committed using the app in question.” These ‘back doors’ would allow governments to decrypt encrypted conversations, but this again presents several challenges. 

“Technology with a backdoor in it is necessarily no longer as secure as it was. And for a back door ever to be proportionate, we would have to be assured that governments would never misuse it, that individual law enforcement and national security agents would have the utmost personal integrity at all times, and that large organisations have perfect oversight and control of who can access their systems and networks. It’s impossible for us to be certain of any of these, because as we know from our explorations of internet governance and fake news (the first and third lectures of this series), different countries have different ideas about what is criminal or dangerous; that government authorities are made up of humans, and some humans break rules; also, that nothing is unhackable.”

She will say the “debate is reduced to a binary choice between E2E on the one hand, and safe children and effective criminal justice on the other. The future of child safety and enforcement of law and order are depicted as hinging on Facebook’s decision alone.”

Who is speaking for citizens? Professor Baines will say that “actually asking the public what they think gives rise to answers that reflect the complexity of the moral and ethical choices surrounding E2E encryption.” Baines will go on to cite the results of two online polls carried out in January for this lecture by The Sun, which found: 

'Should Facebook encrypt all of your chats?' 15,570 votes were cast in just three days, split as follows: 

Definitely                      47% (7,437 votes)
No, absolutely not        28% (4,387 votes)
I'm not sure                  24% (3,746 votes)

We then asked a second question, 'Should the government have access to your online chats?’ 33,240 votes were cast as follows: 

Yes they should            6.93% (2,302 votes)
No, absolutely not        84.02% (27,929 votes)
Hmm... I'm not sure      9.05% (3,009 votes)

She will say “tech companies need to find new ways of keeping their users safe and demonstrating how they do that” and government agencies will need to find new routes for evidencing online crimes. “Paradoxically, it may be the opposite of privacy and secrecy – transparency – that helps us determine how to proceed with securing our communications and overseeing surveillance in the future.”



Notes to Editors

You can sign up to watch the hybrid lecture online or in person; or email us for an embargoed transcript or speak to Professor Baines: / 07799 738 439

Read more about Professor Victoria Baines, who is the IT Livery Company Professor of Information Technology and is a leading authority in the field of online trust, safety and cybersecurity.