Fredrik Finney-Jordet/The Broadside
Back in March 2020, Senator Lindsey Graham sponsored the EARN IT Act to end the sexual exploitation of children online. However, the EARN IT Act’s underlying purpose was not in the interest of child safety but rather in a new ability for law enforcement to bypass end-to-end encryption and undermine our constitutional rights.
What is encryption? Basically, when a message is encrypted, its content is jumbled into seemingly random characters using a key or string of letters and numbers. Without the key, the message can’t be deciphered. End-to-end encryption is when a message is encrypted before it is sent and only decrypted after it is received. That way, the raw, unencrypted message is never on the internet.
Think of it as your mail; end-to-end encryption is like an envelope, keeping your letter private from when you seal it to when the recipient opens it.
Law enforcement officials, including former Attorney General Barr, have long tried to steam open those digital envelopes. You may remember that in 2016, the FBI entered a standoff with Apple over an encrypted phone needed in a case. Facebook traded comments with Attorney General Barr about end-to-end encryption coming to Facebook platforms just a year ago.
The EARN IT Act was intended for this purpose, creating a federal commission that would identify “best practices” for online platforms such as social media and chat services to follow. This committee would effectively serve to check items off an anti-privacy wish list, eliminating whatever means civilians use to maintain their privacy that stands in the way of law enforcement.
Due to widespread backlash, the bill was amended several times to try and quell privacy concerns, but the amendments maintained loopholes—or created new ones—that allowed for unconstitutional restrictions.
The most threatening item on the anti-privacy wish list is encryption backdoors for government law enforcement. This would allow the government to access decrypted versions of messages on encrypted platforms. The EARN IT Act’s best practices commission would no doubt require this, but it may not need to.
After the EARN IT Act, Senator Lindsey Graham followed up in June with the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” a more transparent and even more aggressive attack on encryption. While the EARN IT Act would enable law enforcement to choose how to violate our right to privacy, the new Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act would actively end encryption as a method of securing that right.
The Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act gives the Justice Department the ability to require encrypted messaging services to decrypt data for law enforcement upon request. In other words, it’s a backdoor. Under this law, if government authorities want messages that someone has sent through a chat service, that chat service would be required to decrypt those messages for the authorities.
These two bills show that the government is tired of steaming open our digital letters. Instead, they are banning envelopes.
Both bills drew minor attention when they were announced but quickly dipped out of the public eye. However, both bills are very much alive in the halls of congress and significant threats to your right to privacy.
This is a more significant threat to our digital rights than the repeal of net neutrality, yet it has garnered a fraction of the response. In a democracy, it is up to us, the People, to create that response. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the EARN IT Act; the unconstitutional attack on encryption comes from both sides of the aisle, and so too should the outrage of a people with their rights in peril.
Our Congresspersons have the responsibility, as our democratic representatives, to end the attack on our digital rights. We the People, have a responsibility, as their boss, to rise and demand those rights be protected.