Ahead of this week's Five-Eyes meeting in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Australian and UK politicians have made it clear that they will try to force companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft to break encryption.

This is because encryption of data and communications is widespread, and despite millions of dollars being spent on cutting edge tech, spy agencies can't get into your devices very easily.

That means your personal information is protected and safe from everyone, both good people and baddies. It could change after Ottawa though, so let's think through what it means in case providers have to break end to end encryption.

Encryption is only for baddies

Wrong. The internet is a huge open network that everyone has access to. Everything you send and receive can and will go via someone else's computers, because that's how the internet works. We all use encryption everyday on the internet to protect the information we send and receive.


Without that protection, we can't share private, sensitive information, and what we receive can be tampered with. Would you want to get over the air updates for your self driving car if they weren't transmitted securely with encryption?

I've got nothing to hide, and don't need encryption

If you have nothing to hide, post the logins and passwords to your email, Trade Me, internet banking and IRD accounts, along with some very private thoughts on your life, medical history and more. That's what you'll effectively be doing anyway, if encryption is broken.

I don't share anything personal on the internet

You probably do just that, simply by connecting a personal device to the internet. Either way, the whole point and value of the internet is to be able to share information as we see fit - and safely. If that goes away, so does the value of the internet.

The digital keys to your encrypted data are safe with the Government and police
The massive and frequent data leaks involving governments and their spy agencies suggest it's not a matter of if but when your digital keys will spill out.

Also, it's not just our Government that will insist on having the keys. Regimes that actively trample on human rights will get them too. They will love it. No more will they need to hack into dissidents' devices with malware and social engineering to find those people, and kill them in some cases.

Breaking encryption is on a device by device basis

Weaken encryption for one particular device, and you put millions of gadgets that are exactly the same at risk. That's just the way it works, unfortunately: you can't tailor a backdoor to one particular device. It'll work on every single one that's the same.
We have to stop terrorists and criminals from "going dark" surely?

Not by weakening our privacy and with it, our security online. Besides, bad people who use strong encryption now aren't going to stop scrambling their communications. They will appreciate being able to break into your data more easily though.

How is the tech industry handling this?

Badly. If people lose trust in tech services being confidential and secure to use, there'll be some billion dollar company failures ahead. What if network-delivered services like online accounting, e-commerce, banking, social media, government sites and more become unsafe to use? You're back to running your own systems and sending things via post and courier instead. The cost of going back to how things were done decades ago would be enormous.


The debate on whether or not to have backdoors in encryption started in the late 90s already. Governments brushed aside arguments that it was a bad idea then, and they will win again because you can't reason your way out of a moral panic.

Silicon Valley knows this, but is stuck between a rock and a hard place, with no apparent way out.

OK, that doesn't sound great. What can I do?

Nothing much. It won't happen immediately but there will be backdoors and wiretapping capabilities built into the services you and I use. The thought of private citizens communicating in private with one another is melting our politicians' brains.

Something bad needs to happen after that, a very public mishap with people being hurt and dying because our data and communications weren't secure, to fix the colossal mistake we're about to make by weakening encryption.

Don't expect any accountability for those who pushed through the mistake however.