Campaign by UK Gov Raises Privacy Concerns

Encryption remains a powerful privacy tool needed for secure data exchanges (use cases include online banking, handling student records in a school database, or national cyber security).

But some British officials are set to campaign against the possibility of this mechanism, as with fears around VPN protocols, being used to work against law enforcement and to protect criminals.

Allegedly, the British government is more worried about criminal abuse than its protective capabilities, and so are planning a large-scale advertising campaign to discourage public adoption of encryption tools.

But is this the right messaging? And will it succeed? We cover this in this news post, including how to spot the campaign once it’s underway if it does get greenlit.

The Agenda

Rolling Stone Magazine was the first major outlet to break the news that the UK government was using an advertising agency to plan a new PR campaign. Its objective? To undermine public faith in the legitimacy of encrypted communications apps.

Leaked data allegedly reveals pre-prepared public relations stunts and a barrage of psychological online ads. The specific aim is to galvanise the British public into a furore against Meta’s plans to integrate end-to-end encryption into their Messenger app, mimicking other encrypted communication platforms like Telegram. 

Although Meta does not currently offer this encrypted 'secret messages' function, it’s in the pipe works – in order to increase end-to-end encryption capabilities to all exchanges across their communications platform.

The British government plans to launch a multistage PR attack on technology, according to Rolling Stone sources. One key goal: galvanising public thoughts to work against Meta’s plans for integrating encryptions into its Messenger tool.

HMO sought out M&C Saatchi advertising company — which is a division of of Saatchi and Saatchi, he was responsible for the “Labour Isn’t Working” election campaign, which is one of the most recognised PR pains British history — using them to prepare the campaign, supported by public funds.

How to Spot the Campaign

One notable detail that leaked from the agenda is an idea to display on the streets two people — one an adult, the other in childhood — actors would sit inside of a large transparent box. Pedestrians and motorists would come across these two actors using internet devices, presumably messaging between one another, before which point outside of the box becomes impenetrable, blocking passersby from seeing what happens next.

Generally speaking, the campaign is designed to bolster uneasiness with the British public surrounding the idea of encrypted communication as a suitable service for the public. Several sources from the Rolling Stones claimed pain was due to start in April, and that several privacy groups were already preparing counter-campaigns. 

One Home Office spokesperson confirmed that they did approach M&C Saatchi with the intention of gathering organisations together who believe that there are concerning aspects surrounding end-to-end encryption and this impact on keeping British children safe.

Why Does the UK Government Have This Agenda?

To understand why the British government is doing this campaign, you have to consider the central argument against encrypted communication platforms like WhatsApp, Telegram, and (soon to come) Meta Messenger.

Those against end-to-end encryption worry that it could potentially shield criminals and other bad actors online. This is because it adds a layer of subterfuge preventing law enforcement from tracking key targets, for example, exchanges initiators between these players are mostly untrackable or more difficult to track.

And late data showing her government plans to focus the campaign on this capability being used to increase the exploitation of children doesn’t really come as a surprise. It’s a large topic of concern with the public, and so this really could sway folk to proactively support anti-encryption legislation.

Indeed, many Home Secretaries for a variety of parties been ordered in their anti-encryption positions, believing that this capability — which is the backbone for online privacy, how VPNs work, and data security — will working against the ability for British authorities to run surveillance, this will snowball into producing efficiency with fighting organised crime, and overall ruined how well they can prevent major attacks. The U.S. FBI has taken a similar position in the last few years — although many of these claims have been arguably debunked by civil societies and technology leaders. 

The leaked campaign, however, triples down on the effect of encryption with being able to reduce the exploitation of children online. And the preparation by M&C Saatchi does admit that several major messaging platforms, including WhatsApp already employ end-to-end encryption, but nevertheless want to limit further adoption.

The campaign agenda includes a media blitz, that includes organisations enforcement and UK charities, with specific CTAs for the public to reach out to technological firms directly, and numerous PR stunts — each designed to increase the amount of public uneasiness about encryption. The presentation was indeed collated in order to build early support from not-for-profit partners, so it is not obvious what elements of the leaked document were actually set to reach the final stages of the campaign. 

One important slide comments that most of the British public are completely unaware of end-to-end encryption – which is a key advantage of running an early and widespread media blitz on the topic. The British public, put into the leaked document, would be easily swayed. And this same side also at the campaign must avoid wading into the “safety versus privacy” argument. 

Surprisingly, numerous online privacy advocates termed these government campaign plans sheer “scaremongering” which could actually increase risks to youngsters and vulnerable adults by stripping away online privacy.

For instance, Robin Wilton, who is director of Internet Trust at Internet Society, says the Home Office’s “scaremongering campaign” is disingenuous as well as “dangerous.” The response was equally certain, saying that the lack of strong encryption would lead to children being more vulnerable online. Robin believes encryption safeguards users as well as national security – this campaign would increase how much risk everyone was in. 

A Freedom of Information request was made in response to rumours of this proposal. And the Home Office was forced to disclose that their current plans had £534K allocated for the entire campaign. 

There was not any immediate response to requests for comments by the Home Office and M&C Saatchi. And a spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who was part of the partnership coalition for the campaign, made a statement to Rolling Stone saying that this information request was best left to the Home Office press office.

Advantages of Encryption

There are two sides to the argument, of course. Advocates for communication apps will be quick to point out the numerous advantages that this capability offers.

Indeed, end-to-end encryption has historically allowed journalists and activists working inside of censored states to communicate about occurrences without taking on higher personal risk. Privacy advocates also add that vulnerable demographics, such as children, can also get safety benefits from being able to anonymously communicate.