- A transnational coalition of intelligence agencies called for tech companies to weaken encryption standards.
- The tension of end-to-end encryption highlights the power tech companies have amassed to establish consumer privacy norms.
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Over the weekend, the transnational alliance of intelligence agencies Five Eyes called for tech companies to provide law enforcement agencies with backdoor access to data transmitted via end-to-end encryption (E2EE).
Japan and India also signed the statement from Five Eyes, whose member nations include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the US. With E2EE, only message senders and receivers can access the transmitted data—by definition, E2EE doesn’t allow for backdoors, which enable third parties to intercept and read messages.
Services such as Zoom, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Apple’s iMessage, and Signal offer E2EE. The statement from Five Eyes alleges that E2EE “pose[s] significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies.” It adds, “We challenge the assertion that public safety cannot be protected without compromising privacy or cyber security.”
E2EE encryption highlights Big Tech’s divergent stances on consumer privacy protections, reflected in the privacy policies of companies like Apple and Palantir:
- Apple has attempted to protect consumer privacy against perceived threats from competitors and the US government alike. Apple CEO Tim Cook has made a point of emphasizing privacy as a competitive advantage for the tech giant: In a 2019 interview with ABC News, Cook called privacy a “crisis” and called for “rigorous regulation.” Apple is expected to roll out an iOS privacy feature next year that would require users to give explicit permission before third-party apps can access IDFA identifier data used to target ads. The company’s efforts aren’t limited to protecting consumers from other companies—in 2016, Cook refused the FBI’s request to build a backdoor in iOS for law enforcement use, arguing that the government “could extend this breach of privacy and demand that Apple build surveillance software.” In such circumstances, Apple has acted as a bulwark against government programs it perceives as lacking proper oversight, such as the NSA mass surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden, which was finally ruled unlawful in September 2020.
- Palantir believes US tech companies have a duty to assist US government agencies if at all possible. Alex Karp, the CEO of the controversial big data software contractor, wrote in the company’s S1 filing: “The engineering elite of Silicon Valley may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires.” Palantir received considerable pushback for its work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in tracking undocumented people, providing field intelligence for the US military’s deployment of drones, and assisting governments in mass surveillance efforts. Karp seems to believe that these actions are justified in that they serve the company’s mission to support Western liberal democracy, even if the actions themselves may be considered illiberal.
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