Communications security: Essential, or a threat?


Earlier this month, you may have noticed that WhatsApp is making the latest contribution to the debate over digital privacy by automatically encrypting communications through their platform using end-to-end digital security. For those uninitiated in digital security, end-to-end security encrypts messages as soon as they are sent, and these can only be decrypted using a security key held by the intended recipient.

Our CTO, Kranthi Vempati was quick to respond to this article, saying that he welcomes the move by Whatsapp to secure his digital communications, pointing out that it prevents unintended snooping by third parties. Mr Vempati went on to say that if governments and corporations can secure their communications using this technology, then surely we (as regular citizens) ought to be able to as well!

Several other leading figures in the technology industry also seem to be of this opinion, with a recent high profile case in America, where Apple Corporation refused a government order to unlock an iPhone, citing an individual’s right to privacy. With high profile business leaders and commentators coming out in support of Apple, public opinion seemed to be firmly against the government, but Pankaj Kankatti, our CIO, was quick to rubbish this opinion.

Whilst acknowledging an individual’s right to privacy as important, Mr Kankatti felt that the issue was too complex to defined in black and white, and instead argued that the circumstances should define the requirement for encryption. With the myriad threats to human life around the globe, any personal or social media platform should not be encrypted in such a manner as to be entirely unreadable, as the prevalence of these technologies makes it too easy for the wrong people to abuse them.

Instead, there should be concrete policies put in place by national governments, with stringent checks on personal details and the reason behind request the encryption, and then provisions should be made.

Of course, it’s also important to remember that public encryption services are rarely unbreakable. Digital security is a complex field, and encrypting communications relies on a number of factors, with 256 bit encryption (whereby the decryption key is 256 characters long) currently considered to be the most secure. Of course, overall security is also determined by the method used to generate these characters, the method used to encrypt the message, as well as physical security (if the recipient lost control of the receiving device, the message could still be decrypted and read by a third party).

Even in the case of the Apple iPhone, the FBI eventually cracked the system independently, but the debate rages on.

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