On Global Encryption Day, October 21, it is crucial to underline the importance of encrypted communication for press freedom. Encryption is vital for the security and privacy of journalists and their sources as well as the integrity and confidentiality of journalistic communication.
End-to-end encryption protects communication from surveillance and interception by third parties so that messages can only be read by the sender and receiver. The technology is employed by messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp, among other platforms.
“Digital surveillance by governments and private actors is an increasingly grave threat to press freedom. Among other things, it exposes journalists and their sources to harassment and persecution and raises the risk of self-censorship. End-to-end encryption is a powerful tool to guard against such surveillance and protect the confidentiality of journalistic investigations, methods, and sources”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “IPI is therefore alarmed by efforts by governments to undermine encryption Governments should be strengthening, not weakening, access to encryption. Global Encryption Day is a crucial reminder of the need to defend journalists’ right to do their work free from the roving eye of the state and of other potential subjects of their reporting.”
Encryption on its own does not completely guarantee security. The recent Pegasus spyware revelations, for instance, show how authorities have abused high-grade surveillance technology to spy on journalists, including accessing communication sent via encrypted messenger apps. This is done by compromising security on a user’s device and intercepting messages before they are encrypted and does not “break” encryption technology.
Such tools, however, remain limited in their scope of application. Encryption remains an effective method to protect privacy. This is demonstrated by the rising number of governments around the world that have sought to weaken end-to-end encryption. Legislation allowing law enforcement to access encrypted communication has been considered, or already implemented, in Australia, the European Union, and the United States, among others.
Stopping the spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) has been raised as one of the main concerns in the encryption and surveillance tech debate. A recent example was Apple’s recent announcement of a software update that would scan users’ phone for CSAM. The update was widely criticized by IPI and many other organizations, and soon after Apple announced it would delay the planned update to “collect input and make improvements”.
Creating a backdoor to encrypted communication – regardless of the claimed justification –effectively terminates the protection that encryption provides. It creates an opportunity for oppressive governments or criminals to surveil journalists and their sources, threatening the watchdog journalism healthy democracies need.