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Encryption 27 April 2021

A Digital Dystopia: How Calls for Backdoors to Encryption Would Ruin the Internet for Everyone

Denise Almeida
By Denise AlmeidaGuest Author

A little over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, our reliance on private, safe, and secure communication has become more critical than ever. So it’s no surprise that organizations across all sectors are increasingly adopting encryption. It’s our strongest digital security tool online, keeping the information we share in daily activities like online banking, working from home, and messaging friends out of the hands of criminals. Encryption is even addressed in the GDPR – as a necessary information security measure to reduce the chance of a data breach.

But while more people and businesses are relying on end-to-end encryption, it’s come under threat from governments. In the European Union, and many other parts of the world, policymakers are calling for encryption backdoors. These proposed backdoors reduce security standards and could cause a catastrophic chain reaction. By creating a fatal weak point in encryption, it would only be a matter of time before the backdoor is discovered and exploited, leading to more targeted attacks that put everyone at greater risk of harm.

Imagine what would happen if they got their wish. Without secure encryption, the Internet – and parts of the world that increasingly rely on it – would soon become a dystopia.

It would have a dramatic effect on the ability of business and governments to continue functioning, especially when most collaboration is happening online. The risks of information breaches, trade secrets, and employee information being leaked would have long-term, negative implications – the very reason businesses and governments rely on encryption to secure their data.

We all want to prevent crime online. As the creators and guardians of the Matrix protocol, we’ve started working on ways to tackle abuse in a decentralized protocol, such as Matrix, without backdoors.

Matrix is an encrypted decentralized communications protocol, powered by open-source software, where anyone can spin up and run their own server. The principles of interoperability and data autonomy are intrinsically part of the ethos of the protocol, as is the core belief that private and secure communications are a right, not a privilege. In a decentralized architecture where several servers may be involved, you have no choice but ensure the user’s data is end-to-end encrypted.

Encryption backdoors are often described as a magical solution that can solve all online harms. But we see it as a proposed technology solution to what is fundamentally a human problem. Human problems require humanized solutions, which is why we’re working on combating abuse without encryption backdoors. One way is through building a reputation system to empower users with the tools to protect themselves from bad actors – without undermining people’s privacy.

The role of private and secure communication has become crucial in helping us fight the pandemic, by enabling millions of people around the world to stay home. End-to-end encryption is what makes it possible. Undermining encryption not only sets a dangerous precedent, but it’s also a lose-lose proposition. It disproportionately harms the people and businesses who rely on secure communications worldwide – while having minimal impact on the bad actors who are targeted by backdoors.


Image by Dalton Abraham via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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