Support Encryption for Everybody or Place Your Faith in Government Snoops

Government agencies have repeatedly proven themselves to be abusive.


Encrypted messaging is dangerous because it enables contacts among racists and extremists, argues the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in a recent feature. The piece, though, fails to demonstrate that hiding data from prying eyes is bad in itself, making its emphasis on encryption odd. It's a choice that can only feed into escalating campaigns by governments and their security services to mandate access to private communications, potentially compromising the civil rights that the SPLC supposedly champions.

"Far-right extremists and white supremacist terrorists have embraced Telegram as their platform of choice, signaling a shift away from these groups' traditional methods of organizing and toward a dangerous future defined by leaderless resistance and 'lone actor' terrorism," Hannah Gais and Megan Squire argue in "How an Encrypted Messaging Platform is Changing Extremist Movements," published by the SPLC on February 16. "In addition to enabling the spread of propaganda, Telegram's built-in features also facilitate recruitment by making it easy for extremists to set up public or private encrypted discussion groups," they add.

Despite the headline and brief mentions of Telegram's encryption features, the bulk of the article examines the app's utility for mass organizing. The authors also object to Telegram's allegedly permissive attitude towards extremists and the ease with which such groups dodge restrictions. The article, then, is a complaint about the ease with which evolving technology allows even unsavory people to connect with one another, mixed with a guilt-by-association smear of encryption at a time when it's under renewed assault by the powers that be.

"On Privacy Day, European end-to-end encrypted services ProtonMail, Threema, Tresorit and Tutanota are calling on EU policy makers to rethink proposals made in December's Council Resolution on Encryption," the four companies announced on January 28. "While it's not explicitly stated in the resolution, it's widely understood that the proposal seeks to allow law enforcement access to encrypted platforms via backdoors. However, the resolution makes a fundamental misunderstanding: encryption is an absolute, data is either encrypted or it isn't, users have privacy or they don't."

The resolution to which they responded, published in December 2020, called for "security through encryption and security despite encryption" and complained "there are instances where encryption renders access to and analysis of evidence extremely challenging or impossible in practice." It added that "Competent authorities must be able to access data in a lawful and targeted manner" in a signal that the European Union favors encryption only if it doesn't inconvenience government snoops.

Earlier, in October, the "Five Eyes" intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States joined with India and Japan in a similar resolution.

"We, the undersigned, support strong encryption, which plays a crucial role in protecting personal data, privacy, intellectual property, trade secrets and cyber security.  It also serves a vital purpose in repressive states to protect journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people," the governments acknowledged in a joint statement. "Particular implementations of encryption technology, however, pose significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children. We urge industry to address our serious concerns where encryption is applied in a way that wholly precludes any legal access to content," they added.

But, if governments can penetrate communications privacy to address "challenges to public safety," there's nothing to stop them from putting "journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people" in that category. Importantly, Pavel Durov, the man who founded the Telegram app to which the SPLC objects, fled Russia after rejecting government demands that he compromise privacy.

"Two years ago, Pavel Durov refused to grant Russian security services access to users' encrypted messages on his popular Telegram messaging app, then a favorite of Russian opposition groups," the Washington Post noted last June. "Using a combination of wily cyber-dodging tactics and the force of Telegram's growing reach, the 35-year-old Russian-born entrepreneur humiliated and outmaneuvered Russia's state telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor."

Of course, communications and encryption are neutral technologies. If they protect opposition groups against repressive governments, they also shield racists and extremists from scrutiny. Some people seem to have decided that it's worth sacrificing journalists and political dissidents in order to target unsavory elements. The SPLC isn't the first group to raise the issue.

"The rise of Telegram and Signal could inflame the debate over encryption, which helps protect the privacy of people's digital communications but can stymie the authorities in crime investigations because conversations are hidden," The New York Times pointed out last month. "Any move to the apps by far-right groups in particular has worried U.S. authorities…"

Those same U.S. authorities, let's remember, have engaged in extensive domestic surveillance that the FBI itself admits "was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging first amendment rights and for other reasons." The SPLC, born in the civil rights movement but under fire for a seeming loss of purpose, must still understand how useful encryption would have been to activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. The technology could have spared them much grief from hostile government agents.

"The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began monitoring Martin Luther King, Jr., in December 1955, during his involvement with the Montgomery bus boycott, and engaged in covert operations against him throughout the 1960s," notes The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. "Under the FBI's domestic counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) King was subjected to various kinds of FBI surveillance that produced alleged evidence of extramarital affairs, though no evidence of Communist influence."

It's not surprising that security agencies would want enhanced capability for their surveillance programs. It is foolish, though, to think that compromising communications privacy for bad actors won't have the same impact on everybody else, or that encryption can be reserved as a protection only for people somehow designated as on the side of the angels. As the European encrypted services emphasized in their joint statement, "encryption is an absolute, data is either encrypted or it isn't, users have privacy or they don't." We either allow that everybody is entitled to privacy protections, or we place our trust in government agencies that have repeatedly proven themselves to be abusive.

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  1. Just a wild and crazy thought:
    Don’t do anything online that needs encryption.
    Redington was right.

    1. Should Google and Apple really allow encrypted apps on their respective platforms when we’ve seen these shadow communication apps used by alt-right neo-Nazis to spread dangerous COVID denialism, absurd election hacking claims, and anti-Semitic Q-Anon fantasies? As a Jew and ACLU donor, I’d rather have safety for my people than freedom of hate speech for all.

      1. What exactly is hate speech? Who determines what we can and cannot say? Whatever happened to the 1st amendment? Harvey, do you remember the Skokie Illinois issue with the American Nazi Party’s plan to march in Skokie in the 1970s? They got attention nationally that never would have happened if the ANP had been allowed to hold their march as scheduled. And, the Nazis eventually won their legal case and were permitted to march. Challenge people on their ideas, no matter how reprehensible, but don’t censor their 1st amendment rights.

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    2. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear? LOL

      1. Yeah, a government that wishes to have access to any and all data is a crooked government. If you don’t believe, me, believe my next door neighbor who is from Kazakhstan (a Soviet “republic”).

      2. So if the cops have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from making police disciplinary records 100% public….

    3. I’m really hoping that was sarcasm. If it wasn’t then fuck off, slaver.

      1. What difference, at this point, does it make?

        The line between sarcasm and prophesy is disappearing.

        (My family tree, as far back as I have gone, shows no slave owners)

    4. Right! Like buying anything! Make Brick and Mortar Great Again!

      1. #OpenBorders

  2. Shorter version of current SPLC and other wanna-be totalitarians:

    Government power used against my tribe is bad. Government power that my tribe can use against others is good.

    I think something like this was first said in 10,000 BC.

    1. We’re fighting extremists who support racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bigotry. How can we be wrong when we are the good guys?

      1. Finally, you CALCALS are starting to get it.

        1. Geez , you are dumb.

          1. The comments section is really a minefield these days. Gotta read the handles carefully or you’ll step in some sarcasm.

            1. Whoops! My bad.

      2. Death to the infidels! Right?

        (also first said in 10,000 BC)

  3. They only want to monitor the bad guys but this necessarily requires them to monitor everybody so that they can figure out just who the bad guys are. Not trusting your government to monitor you is a sure sign you’re one of the bad guys and a red flag that you need monitoring most of all.

    1. It’s impossible to tell the difference between mockery and wokism anymore. If it was DOL instead of Jerryskids saying this, it would have been sincere.

    2. I wonder what Orwell would think of his warning being used as an instruction manual.

      1. You have to remember that Orwell was a die hard socialist bitterly disillusioned with strong arm uses of power in burma and the spanish civil war. I don’t think his writings were a warning. It wasn’t something that could happen. It was simply fanciful writings about how this stuff just happens, how it has always happened and how it will keep happening forever because humans are terrible and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

  4. I believe the attempted overthrow of our government on January sixth, by less desirable, low achievement members of society; demonstrated a pressing need to monitor those on the lower end of the economic scale with unhealthy political opinions.
    Since we are now (wisely) eliminating police departments infested with institutional racism, something needs to fill the void. A new CIA/FBI-like federal agency dedicated to monitoring internal political threats would be a valuable tool for liberty and fortifying our democracy.

    1. I think there are more parody, spoof and sock posts than serious ones anymore.

      1. Poe’s law is making the parody of the Woke nowadays, futile.
        People have gone insane in the West.

    2. I bow before a superior troll.
      Master, teach me your ways.

  5. The message of this article is for me to support something but why do I feel as though I won’t be offered a choice? Does “support” even matter?

    If I just bend over can we just get all this over with more quickly?

    1. The boot stomps on your face forever.

      1. Does mommy AOC do the boot stomping?

        1. The Department of Groupthink has assigned a minority transgender to oversee the boot stomping.

          1. You forgot “fat positive” in your list of adjectives.

  6. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” Thomas Jefferson

    1. Yeah, but he was willing to shoot you in the face over it.

      The authors here got the vapors when some people had a mostly peaceful demonstration at the Capitol.

  7. Your mistake is in assuming anything the SPLC says is in good faith. They are as bad racist totalitarians as any of the people they criticize (and usually worse). The SPLC has called for censorship using standards that, if those standards were ever applied fairly, would get them immediately locked up.

    1. By the way, I agree with the comment above that there seem to be more troll and parody accounts than legitimate ones these days. I wish you guys would give it up. Most of you are not nearly as good at sarcasm or parody as you think.

      1. I agree with the comment above that there seem to be more troll and parody accounts than legitimate ones these days.

        And spambots, don’t forget about them. It used to not be this bad. In fact I remember a time when the comments used to have a lot of interesting discussions going on with the occasional troll and/ or parody and hardly any spambots. But now it’s rarely worth bothering anymore. I guess reason decided they could make more money running an adware and spambot infested shitshow than a serious political commentary website. Sad, but hardly surprising. In some ways I suppose it’s kind of microcosm of the general decline of the rest of the world.

        1. Yes, sad. But the comments, as bad as they are, are generally more informative and entertaining than the articles.

      2. Seriously. Some days the comments are all but unreadable. It seems pretty likely that at least a couple of them are paid trolls. Just ignore them, they’ll go away.
        The right wingers that always seem to be on the verge of an aneurysm are probably here to stay, but they clearly arent as invested in propagating talking points and influencing conversations as the left wing shills.

    2. The SPLC is a Democratic party Super-PAC masquerading (poorly) as a human rights organization.
      Change my mind.

  8. We either allow that everybody is entitled to privacy protections, or we place our trust in government agencies that have repeatedly proven themselves to be abusive.

    Well, as long as they’re only abusing people guilty of wrongthink, like “racists and right wing extremists” (which the SPLC and similar groups define as “anyone to the right of Joseph Stalin) then what’s the big deal? /sarc

    1. PLEASE! Make that anyone to the right of (or white of) Louis Farrakhan.

      1. IIRC, Louis Farrakhan believes in hard work, family structures, and abstention from sin.

        That makes him white adjacent at least.

  9. The government may construe sarcastic remarks about woodchippers in a comment section as an actual threat on a government employee. So yeah. Encryption can be good.

  10. It used to be a crime to intercept and read personal mail and telephone conversations.

    Just because it’s easy to commit a crime that shouldn’t be a reason to coerce us not to enjoy our rights, or to jump through hoops in a futile attempt to avoid brazen criminals.

    It’s well past time to stand up for and redouble our constitutional rights. This requires a legal recognition of “the internet” in all applicable laws, from free speech to privacy, and then taking the steps to make and enforce laws that protect our rights first, before the financial interests of oligarchs.

  11. Supporting encryption is silly unless you are willing to support decryption with equal fervor.

    I’d be concerned that using these services would act as a ‘honey trap,’ showing surveillance agencies who to target. The messages themselves may be encrypted but their is a wealth of information to be gathered by analysis of the metadata.

    1. Some people seem to have decided that it’s worth sacrificing journalists and political dissidents in order to target unsavory elements. The SPLC isn’t the first group to raise the issue.

      To be fucking sure!

    2. Whoops sorry, the above wasn’t meant in reply to you.

      The “Supporting encryption is silly unless you are willing to support decryption with equal fervor” line is pretty funny though.

      1. There not their, whom not who. I’m having an off day.

    3. Why, exactly, do I have to support decryption just because I support encryption? (Assuming, of course, that you mean decryption by someone other than my intended communication partner.)

      And the only reason these services work as a ‘honey pot’ is if they are only used by bad actors. If, on the other hand, good people use them just because, the predictive value of their use becomes worthless. I use Signal to communicate with my family not because my shopping list is especially private but exactly because I want to flood the NSA’s queue with innocent garbage so they will be unable to find the one message I really want hidden. By the same token, I and many others hold concealed carry licenses even though we do not carry in order to defeat the police’s claims that a mere license is evidence of “danger”.

      1. ” I use Signal to communicate with my family not because my shopping list is especially private but exactly because I want to flood the NSA’s queue with innocent garbage so they will be unable to find the one message I really want hidden.”

        You could use a tor browser for much the same reason. But I assume you don’t because of the inconvenience. Most people are more concerned with convenience than privacy, so the honey trap will still work.

        1. To be effective as a countermeasure, the relevant ratio is not users of encryption vs non-users – the relevant ratio is good users vs bad users. As long as the good:bad ratio is high, the ratio of users:non-users is almost irrelevant.

          But you are correct – the key to adoption by good users is convenience. Tools like Signal and Protonmail have largely solved that within their specific domains. Tor has not (yet).

          1. I don’t use these services but I wouldn’t find it to inconvenient to download and install them. What would be a major drag would be to have to persuade all the people to whom I’d be sending messages to do the same. (Assuming both sender and recipient need the software to work smoothly.)

            1. Neither Signal nor Protonmail have that requirement. They just drop to unsecured communications to those outside their network (properly notifying you along the way that they are doing so). And they still keep your copy of the messages fully encrypted.

              By the way, I suspect you would be pleasantly surprised how many of your contacts are already on Signal.

  12. It is not our responsibility as Americans to make law enforcement’s job easier.

  13. Irony – Pretending surveillance is needed to find the neo-Nazi Extremists (def; National Socialism) and racists (def; skin color is a fundamental determinant) in society when so many ‘lefties’ embrace both terms so openly and publicly while going to the extremities of witch-hunts and targetting.

    1. Activist in groups like the proud boys or the Houston anti racist action committee have already been identified thanks to being infiltrated up to their eyeballs with FBI spies and agents provocateur.

  14. What we really need are laws against whispering. And closed doors. Who knows what those people could be saying to each other?

    1. *shhhh* I’ll tell you quietly over there why.

  15. “Extremism’ is a word deliberately chosen for its vagueness and used by intellectual slobs who are too desperate, sneaky or lazy to say exactly what they mean. Its only purpose is to deliberately try to confuse the difference between people who are extremely good (usually because of devotion to their principles) with people who are extremely bad. The sleazeballs who use this supposedly scary, yet undefined word are not only trying to smear people of conviction and integrity, but they’re also trying to divert attention away from the fact that they are obviously not people of principle themselves.” ~ Rick Gaber

    1. “only trying to smear people of conviction and integrity,”

      There are some extremists who are complete cads, as well. There”s nothing wrong with being called an extremist. It simply means someone who strays too far from what you could call the neo liberal consensus that all the most powerful people in at least the western world and a good deal of the Eastern world, as well. Omar is an extremist because she falls on the wrong side of the Israel Palestine issue. QAnon is extremist because they believe(?) in the criminality of the ruling class and advocate a debt jubilee where all debt is cancelled, apparently. Extreme just means outside the mainstream, you should learn to wear the label with pride. Flip the script. in the parlance of the times.

  16. The Bureau, in particular, along with other Federal agencies has been complaining about targets “going dark” since at least 2006. Encryption isn’t a barrier to anyone who can conduct a competent investigation, but our Federal LE agencies have become too reliant on electronic surveillance to the exclusion of other investigative techniques.

    There is no particular need for any “back door” into an encrypted application. As the man said, it’s either encrypted or it isn’t. There is no middle ground.

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