The home office has allocated £534,000 of public funds to hire the high-end PR agency M&C Saatchi, that will be in charge of a new advertising strategy.
The Government is preparing a media blitz that includes some disturbing tactics to turn public opinion against end-to-end encryption (E2EE) in Facebook's Messenger app. The central argument of this new campaign is based on rather dubious statements that improved encryption would interfere with the authorities' efforts to fight child exploitation online.
Inside a glass box
The campaign, called No Place to Hide, was designed with the clear intention of making the public feel "uneasy" while watching it (for stronger impact), as was openly stated in a recruitment presentation made for non-profit coalition partners. According to Rolling Stone magazine, which was among the first to throw light on the Government's plans, one of the slides observed that "most of the public has never heard" of end-to-end encryption, so they can "be easily swayed" on the matter. The slide also noted that this campaign mustn't reignite the whole privacy vs safety debate.
One of the most unsettling ideas for the promotion of the campaign, however, includes a stunt with a child actor placed in a glass box. On the outside, there would be an adult actor staring "knowingly" at them as the box fades to black. The campaign would also involve social media activism with parents addressing Mark (Zuckerberg) about the issue via their Facebook pages.
The Home Office's scaremongering campaign is as disingenuous as it is dangerous.
Most people are appalled by the idea of putting a child in a box for an adult person's scrutiny, regardless of the intentions and message behind it. Campaign critics have rightly observed that these are strange methods of leading a campaign – by giving media space to the exact scenarios that the campaign is supposedly fighting against. Online privacy advocates described the campaign as scaremongering – pointing out that these kinds of campaigns, to undermine online privacy, could put children and vulnerable adults at much greater risks than the use of E2E encryption.
Behind the scenes
Meta already offers end-to-end encryption (E2EE) on its other platform, WhatsApp, but the UK campaign is trying to prevent the implementation of this privacy feature to Messenger, come what may. At the moment, we have Britain's Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Home Secretaries of different political parties strongly supporting anti-encryption stances. They insist that the use of E2EE will hinder the battles of authorities against organized crime and terror, and make it even more difficult to keep children safe.
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.
Across the Atlantic, the American FBI tried ambushing the public with similar assertions a few years ago. However, their propaganda failed miserably after technologists debunked all their claims with supporting evidence of the actual opposite effect of E2EE. The efforts of civil libertarians on both sides of the Atlantic helped as well at the time.
Once again, experts disagree with the Government's belief that the enforcement of "Big Brother" can improve anyone's safety. Most privacy advocates, including us here at ProPrivacy, are clear that this is just another attempt by those in power to increase state surveillance by getting access to citizens' most private conversations. But the unscrupulous means being used to accomplish this are, by far, the most daunting part of this latest campaign.