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UK government to launch ad campaign to convince people that end-to-end encryption is bad

The high-budget campaign will reportedly involve ‘real-world stunts’; meanwhile, privacy groups plan counter measures.

The United Kingdom (UK) government will soon launch an advertisement campaign attacking end-to-end encryption by convincing people that it harms children’s safety, Rolling Stone reported.

This is the country’s latest attempt to weaken the security of encrypted communication apps and devices. As far back as 2015, the UK government proposed a complete ban on apps like WhatsApp and iMessage if they declined to provide UK security services backdoor access to messages. Eventually, in 2016, the government passed the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which expands the surveillance power of the government and allows the government to outlaw encrypted apps by issuing something called a Technical Capability Notice (TCN). Then in May 2021, the government released the draft Online Safety Bill which mandates platforms to moderate illegal and harmful content on their platforms, but critics have pointed out that removing or weakening encryption is the only way to comply with this bill.

The UK is not the only country waging a war against end-to-end encryption. The US is thinking along similar lines and so is India. The Indian government last year released the Information Technology Rules 2021, which includes a provision that asks messaging apps to enable tracing the originator of a message. Companies have argued that such a feature will effectively break end-to-end encryption and WhatsApp has legally challenged the provision.

More details on UK’s campaign against encryption

  • Targeted towards Meta: The campaign will especially target Meta’s (formerly Facebook) plan to encrypt the Messenger app, the report said. Meta has already delayed its plans to encrypt Messenger to 2023.
  • Will lay emphasis on harm to children: The campaign is expected to highlight the harms to children and difficultly in tackling child exploitation due to end-to-end encryption, the report said. The campaign will also appear “to be the result of grassroots action and children’s charities, while downplaying any government role,” the report added. Another tactic that the campaign will deploy is targeting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a father rather than a businessman, the report said.

“According to documents reviewed by Rolling Stone, one the activities considered as part of the publicity offensive is a striking stunt — placing an adult and child (both actors) in a glass box, with the adult looking “knowingly” at the child as the glass fades to black.” – Rolling Stone

  • Counter-campaigns planned by privacy groups: While the government campaign is set to start this month, privacy groups are planning counter-campaigns, the report said.

“The Home Office’s scaremongering campaign is as disingenuous as it is dangerous. Without strong encryption, children are more vulnerable online than ever. Encryption protects personal safety and national security … what the government is proposing puts everyone at risk.” – Robin Wilton, director of Internet Trust at the Internet Society to Rolling Stone

  • Top-tier ad firm hired: The UK Home Office has hired M&C Saatchi advertising agency, a top-tier firm that has successfully carried out campaigns for the government in the past, the report said. The estimated budget for the campaign is GBP 534,000 as per a Freedom of Information response received by Rolling Stone.

“We have engaged M&C Saatchi to bring together the many organisations who share our concerns about the impact end-to-end encryption would have on our ability to keep children safe,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement to Rolling Stone.

  • Multi-pronged campaign: The campaign is not limited to advertisements and will include “campaign efforts from UK charities and law enforcement agencies, calls to action for the public to contact tech companies directly, and multiple real-world stunts — some designed to make the public ‘uneasy,’” Rolling Stone said.
  • Capitalise on people’s unawareness: According to a slide deck seen by Rolling Stone, the campaign aims to take advantage of the fact that “most of the public have never heard” of end-to-end encryption,” which means “people can be easily swayed” on the issue, the report revealed.

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