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Opinion | End-to-end encryption must be retained at all cost

Stripping away anonymity because a few have used it for vile purposes is not a valid justification

In Book II of Plato’s The Republic, a question is posed to Socrates about the Ring of Gyges, a mythical device that renders the wearer invisible. He is asked whether it’s possible for anyone who has this ring to resist the temptation of killing, robbing, raping or generally breaking the law when all he has to do is just put it on and then freely commit all those crimes without the risk of being detected. Inherent in the question is the presumption that the reason we obey laws is the fear of being caught and that if we find a way to be perfectly anonymous, nothing will stop us from violating laws that no-one can know we have broken.

Today’s messaging applications have end-to-end encryption baked into their design. This technology guarantees that all conversations between users on the platform will forever remain anonymous, making it as close a technology to the Ring of Gyges as we have ever had. As these platforms are used by virtually everyone, messages sent through them spread with greater velocity and reach more people than has ever been possible before. This has resulted in the widespread proliferation of provocative content, giving rise to concerns around the consequences this could have on society.

The rise of fake news is being attributed to the anonymity messaging platforms provide. It is being argued that because users know they can’t be identified and that their messages can’t be traced back to them, they have no compunctions in breaking the law. It is, therefore, being suggested that these platforms be stripped of the anonymity they offer so that no one can hide behind a fake identity any more. This, it is believed, will prevent the spread of malicious lies and alternative facts and all the ancillary consequences that will follow.

There is no doubt that anonymity provides a shield behind which evil can hide. It allows the proliferation of extremist propaganda and facilitates child pornography. It contributes to harassment, as the restraint that moderates social interactions when harassers meet their victims face-to-face is disinhibited when they know they can’t be identified. Most visibly, it emboldens trolls, most of whom are otherwise incapable of making cogent arguments but are remarkably quick to unleash vitriol when anonymously responding to persons outside their tribe.

However, just as anonymity allows wrong-doers to hide in plain sight, it provides much needed protection to those who need their identity masked. It gives confidence to people whose voices would otherwise have been suppressed, including minorities and marginalized sections of society, allowing them to express their views publicly without fear of being targeted. It gives whistle-blowers, who otherwise face the risk of organizational recrimination, the courage to shine light on information that their employers would otherwise keep suppressed to serve their own ends. It enables political protest, ensuring that views, no matter how inconvenient they are to the government, can be expressed without fear of reprisal.

Anonymity has an equally important role to play in the more mundane aspects of normal life. It gives people the confidence to seek help from others about the diseases they are afflicted with, be it something as mundane as hair loss or as serious as a sexually transmitted disease or cancer. It gives those who think they might be suffering from mental health issues a means by which they can figure out what is happening to them, which allows them to quietly get help when needed. It lets young women, who think they might be pregnant, safely access reproductive health services or seek counselling. It allows those caught in abusive relationships a way in which to ask for help, be it advice on how to get out of their current situation or which divorce lawyer to contact.

Socrates answered the question on the Ring of Gyges by stating that justice has nothing to do with the social construct described in the question. Anyone who abuses the power of the Ring of Gyges is nothing more than a slave of his appetites. It is the man who possesses the ring and chooses not to use it for nefarious purposes who remains rationally in control and, therefore, stays happy.

This answer resonates with one of the recurring themes of this column, that technology rarely ever has an inherent morality, but readily takes on that of the person deploying it. In the hands of bad people, even the best technology is easily subverted. However, when technology that allows us to be the worst version of ourselves is placed in the hands of those with a strong moral code, they will never use it for evil ends.

Just because some technologies allow people to hide behind it and commit crimes does not mean that the technology should be banned outright. For all those who misuse messaging platforms, there are an equal number of people who rely on it to release themselves from inhibitions created by the ecosystem they live in.

What is clear to me is that stripping away anonymity entirely will never ever be useful. Like-minded people will find each other, regardless of whether they are operating on platforms such as Facebook that strictly enforce real-name policies or on platforms like 8chan that enforce a radical form of anonymity. Just because a few have taken advantage of online anonymity for nefarious purposes does not mean that everyone else should be denied the many benefits that it provides.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and author of ‘Privacy 3.0 :Unlocking Our Data Driven Future’

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