The challenge of strong encryption

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22 April 2015

Planned Departure 200Such is the ubiquitous use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other digital gizmos that they have become reflections of our personalities, our interests and our identities. They are as much a part of us as the clothes we wear.

For the majority, the blogosphere and social media networks – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others – have become woven into the very fabric of our lives. We have transitioned to a global interactive knowledge economy, our world marked by major upheavals in technological innovations.

Even in countries dominated by authoritarian regimes, social media have given people access to alternative and independent sources of information. Such is the extent of the availability of knowledge that it can bring about fundamental reform. This can be seen no more clearly than the Arab Spring.

Given the conspicuous silence of the Arab media towards the suppression of political dissent, human rights abuses and earlier protest activities, the popular uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 took many in the West by surprise.

But in this knowledge-rich world and with newly developing digital technologies comes surveillance on an unprecedented scope and scale. The social networking services we use so frequently, our digitised address books and messaging applications provide a wealth of detailed knowledge of who we are, where we are and our associates and contacts.

Documents released by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ have unilaterally sought to compromise the security of private systems and networks—many operated by major US-based technology companies—to gain access to user data and communications.

These revelations have led to global loss of trust in the security and privacy of US-origin technology. As a result, US companies have introduced a number of encryption measures to safeguard users against surveillance overreach. Google and Apple have announced that data stored on their mobile devices would be encrypted by default, with even the company unable to decrypt locally stored data. WhatsApp has introduced end-to-end encryption and Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo are also expanding encryption across their services.

In the digital age, strong encryption may be deemed essential for the enjoyment of the right to communicate anonymously and privately. We might applaud the activities of Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies, but give a thought to what could happen to the digital assets of individuals who use the products and services of these companies, particularly when they die.

There has been much written in the media concerning the enormous difficulties parents have faced when trying to retrieve the information and material stored in the social media accounts of their loved ones who have passed away.

Strong encryption only makes the task exceedingly more difficult unless appropriate measures are taken during our living years to ensure that, when we die, the digital material we want our loved ones to inherit will be actioned according to our wishes.

The number of people who have established a digital Will is growing but the speed of technological change is accelerating faster. We have much to do to get the message across to the wider community about the need to ensure a digital legacy is in place while the opportunity to do so exists.

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