Predators, Parenting And Privacy: What’s At Stake In The Encryption Debate
By Sisilia Teu, Communications Coordinator, Maxim Institute*
The internet has become an essential part of contemporary life, connecting billions of people while revolutionising how we interact, work, and access information.
Over the years, the web's benefits and disadvantages have grown exponentially. Yes, our lives have been improved by enhanced communication, increased access to education and efficiencies in commerce. Contrarily, online existence has created unprecedented challenges, such as cyberbullying, online fraud and, devastatingly, greater sexual exploitation of children.
This is why New Zealand Police, in cooperation with the Virtual Global Taskforce, is calling for tech corporations to consider child safety when including encryption in their programs “where a child user base and risk is high.”
End-to-end encryption ensures that only the sender and the intended recipient can read messages without any third-party interference. Many popular platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram employ this security method. Consequently, their parent company, Meta, has been strongly criticised by law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and Interpol. In 2018, Australia passed a bill permitting authorities to demand decrypted data from companies. This caused a frenzy in the tech industry.
The argument is that limiting encryption can make it easier for police to monitor online communication and identify potential predators. However, this ignores that many law-abiding citizens rely on encryption to protect their privacy. Its restriction would make users’ sensitive information more vulnerable to unauthorised access. Freedom of speech and expression would be hindered, stifling a fundamental right. Encryption enables individuals to communicate their ideas and opinions without fear of being monitored or censored.
Moreover, restricting encryption may not necessarily uncover online predators, as they could easily switch to platforms with better encryption. Perhaps the most alarming concern is the potential for abuse of power by government agencies if they gain access to private communications. Once we hand over these rights, they’re hard to take back.
In response to the 2018 Australian bill, the Director of Wellington tech company Catalyst, Don Christie, noted, “There is a lot of analysis yet to be done. Regardless of what people conclude, it demonstrates that once your data is out of your jurisdiction, it really is out of your control.” Limiting end-to-end encryption may seem like a quick fix, but it isn’t without significant risks.
Perhaps, there’s a bigger issue here. How much should we allow children, our most precious and vulnerable resource, to participate in these platforms? As innovative as the internet is, it’s also dangerous. Let’s control the controllables. Parents must be ready to implement safeguards if children are to have smartphones. That means limiting device time, active supervision, honest and open conversations about bad actors, and—gasp!—maybe even no phones in bed.
Having a digital footprint involves rights and duties for parents as well as children. If we don’t take responsibility for things within our control, the state will.
*Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.